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While The Escapist may not have an all-star A-list cast, it has a pretty recognizable international one. When I saw the names attached to this thing, I couldn’t believe that it had trouble finding distribution. Luckily IFC Films stepped up to the plate and will add it to their VOD schedule to get some exposure for its DVD release. Much like Unknown from a few years back, Rupert Wyatt’s film is a hidden gem of intrigue and suspense. A disjointed narrative tells the story of a ragtag bunch of criminals looking to escape from a maximum security prison so that the orchestrator, Brian Cox’s Frank Perry, can see his daughter before she dies from drug abuse complications on the outside. Each member of the team has a specialty necessary for the escape to work and/or finds his way on the team through trade, whether consciously or not. You do begin to wonder way Wyatt has decided to show it all inter-spliced with flashbacks on how they got together, and when the conclusion is reached you will understand in a surprisingly satisfactory turn of events.

Now these names may mean absolutely nothing to you, but on paper they are quite the collaborative team. Cox leads the way in recognition and stature, followed by a favorite of mine Damian Lewis, (in a smaller role than I had anticipated), and Joseph Fiennes. Add in the familiar faces of Steven Mackintosh, Liam Cunningham, Dominic Cooper, and singer Seu Jorge and you’ve really got something for a film that will probably not be seen by very many people. And that is the real shame here because The Escapist has a lot going for it. With a good marketing push and word of mouth, this had the potential of being a sleeper hit—an indie done well. Hopefully IFC viewers will start spreading excitement and help it to achieve cult status of some sort. It may not be as mainstream as “Prison Break”, but utilizing the same core idea, Wyatt culls together a unique tale that takes more from a film like Jacob’s Ladder than pop culture television.

It all begins with Cox’s Perry, tired and scared, finding Lewis sitting on a cell bed. The next thing we know, Cox joins up with the team as they have just smashed their way into the laundry room, only now he has a bloodied shirt and what can be assumed as a nasty gash to his stomach. We have been dropped right into the escape and now the group is together, putting their plan in motion. But wait, all of sudden we are back in time watching Cox do laundry duty, Cunningham’s Brodie putting on an ant race, and Mackintosh’s Tony berating newcomer Cooper as he arrives at the prison. The discovery that we are about to go on a journey with the escapees, juxtaposed with how they all came together to plan the event, becomes clear. With sharp cuts, yet coherent story continuity, it all makes sense as both halves reach their crescendos at the end. The plotline of the past thread reaches the point at which the film started and that progression leads to the end of the escape simultaneously. Both meld together as one, revealing what has indeed been going on the entire time, possibly not even parallel timeframes after all.

Complete with some very nice camerawork, Wyatt shows some skill as a director. Scenes like that of Mackintosh and Cooper in the showers, fog shrouding their advance into the water, shielding us from what we know is about to happen, really stick out. Even the trip to that end, with Cooper’s Lacey being “helped” by guards and inmates, opening doors for him to “hide” in, plays nicely into the artistry and aesthetic being put on display. The prison is dark and dingy, yet a paradise in comparison with the large expanses of sewers they soon find themselves traveling through. It is a muted palette throughout, making the light at the end of the tunnel (both figuratively and literally) that much brighter in notion and reality. And the way in which we see things happen is with suspense and intrigue. Watching the inmates plan their escape with dominoes as we are shown the real life places they mimic along with extended sequences of rapid process cuts—whether they be making drugs, creating a steel cutter, or even a jailhouse brawl—many instances beg to be appreciated visually as well as for how well they advance the story.

It all ends up being an actors’ movie, though, as the performances shine above all else. Fiennes was almost unrecognizable to me at the start. I thought that was him, but something was off. Only after about thirty minutes did I finally realize it, Fiennes performing as a madman “utility” guy, nothing like the Shakespearean heroes he is most known for. Lewis is great as the menacing prison czar, always with a smile yet demanding the respect of every inmate with his own brand of punishment the guards look the other way on. And I really liked Seu Jorge’s role as Viv Bastista. He is a wild card to the film—librarian/drug cook/witness for Lewis’ Rizza. What really makes them all so elusive and mysterious, however, even as we learn who they are as men, is the fact that we don’t know what has landed any of them in jail. Are they killers? Thieves? Rapists? It doesn’t matter. These men all come together for a common cause and work as a team to achieve it. They sacrifice themselves for the others, just as Cox realizes that freedom doesn’t have to be of the body, but can also be of the mind.

The Escapist 8/10

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Courtesy of Vertigo Films.

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I love indie debuts that blow me away. The press on Frozen River was across the board praise, especially for underrated character actor Melissa Leo, but I never got the chance to check it out before compiling my top ten of 2008. Now, I don’t think Courtney Hunt’s feature would crack that list, but it gets really close. The story contains so much more than just a tale of two women playing the role of coyotes to bring illegals into the United States via Mohawk territory from Canada. Both Leo’s Ray Eddy and Misty Upham’s Lila Littlewolf are mothers on a mission for survival; both protecting their children above their own safety and comfort. When a smuggling run goes wrong towards the end, you not only see their true worth, but also the humanity they both try so hard to hide behind a steely façade. Finding it necessary to act strong and show no weakness, these women prove that selflessness still exists despite first looks.

Credit Hunt for a beautifully written tale of poverty and against-all-odds sentiments. We are thrust directly into the action, watching Leo’s tear-streaked face as she realizes what has happened. It takes a few minutes more for the audience to comprehend what has transpired, piecing together conversations between her and eldest son T.J. as well as with Mr. Versailles as he takes her new double wide home away in lieu of payment. Leo’s Ray is a woman who has reached her breaking point. She sees the ever-growing ambivalence and frustration in her older son, knowing he can help make money, yet constantly shot down as he must finish school; the youthful exuberance in young son Ricky as the dream of a real home may be taken away, but all he can see is that Santa will make it happen; and the fact that her husband is all but done with their family, seeing their money as a way to extend his gambling habit, not as a future within reach.

While Leo has been lauded over the most, with good reason as she is fantastic, (hopefully this may be her Love Liza, the film that finally gave Oscar-regular Philip Seymour Hoffman his first starring role), but I can’t stop thinking about Upham’s performance. Her Lila is just as integral, if not more to the story at hand. At first appearance she is a disgruntled woman, angry with her people, angry with God, angry with herself. She sees no problem taking an abandoned car from the side of the road and has no moral qualms about bringing illegal immigrants across the border. To her there is no border. The Mohawk territory on either side of the titular frozen river belongs to no nation. Her only real threat in getting caught is to have her money taken away. Unless discovered on American soil, she is technically breaking no laws. A common criminal, drawing Leo into her web so that she has a white woman to cross the US/reservation border, Upham’s Lila is an enigma. Only when we discover the reason behind her smuggling do we understand how similar these two women are. The one big difference between them becomes her belief and unflappable trust in God. She sees miracles and destiny whereas Leo sees coincidence and necessity. The two viewpoints merge together at the end, bonding the two forever—two mothers who will stop at nothing for the children they’d rather lose for short periods of time then see them suffer for the long term.

Besides some wonderfully stark and bleak shots, the film’s real strength lies in the acting. There are some gorgeous frames of the snow on the river, winter in the dark, and the solitude and quiet of their patch of New York State bordering Quebec. Little touches like that of the bike-powered merry-go-round at the Eddy house brings a sense of downtrodden aesthetic. We see the day-to-day grind on the reservation and in the town—at the Bingo hall, the Yankee Dollar, the trailer parks, etc. Nothing makes that world more authentic then those inhabiting it, though. I have to believe most extras were amateurs recruited to be a part of the film. They stay in the background and add a layer to the tale that would be missing if cast by a Hollywood studio with “pretty” people.

A few familiar faces are included as well with Michael O’Keefe’s small role as the State Trooper manning the border and Mark Boone Junior as a menacing French-Canadian fence in the world of human trafficking. It’s Junior’s Jacques Bruno that shows the evil and danger in what they are doing. It’s not all about people trying to do the right thing, but also about money. Besides these two, Charlie McDermott, as T.J., deserves mention too. He shines as the older-than-his-years son, willing to take the mantle of man of the house even if his mother feels he is not yet ready. The aggression and anger brewing inside of him becomes a mask for the scared boy he is, realizing how his father had failed them and how hard it is for his mother. He wants to help and not being able to just makes the frustration mount. It’s a definite departure from his juvenile delinquent role in Sex Drive, one that didn’t ask for much.

The issue of a duffel bag brought over by a couple of Pakistani illegals will soon take over the film and become the most memorable sequence, however, Frozen River isn’t to be remembered by one instance. Yes, that coyote run becomes the defining moment for our two leads, but the rest of the story is so well told that it would have fallen flat as a contrivance if not. What happens as a result of that bag only works in the context of what has come before it. Hunt’s screenplay earns that moment and runs with it until the end. Not every happy ending is necessarily without loss, but hiccups at the start, which allow for a renewal later on, can’t be passed off as defeat. It’s just delayed success, a bright future ahead to hold on to and alleviate the pain of the present.

Frozen River 9/10

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[1] Left: Misty Upham as Lila Right: Melissa Leo as Ray Photos by Jory Sutton © 2007 Frozen River Productions, LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Charlie McDermott as TJ Eddy Photos by Jory Sutton © 2007 Frozen River Productions, LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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It takes some guts and talent to take your Oscar nominated short film and convert it to a full length feature, let alone allow that feature length debut be as good as it is. I know that my love for Sean Ellis’ Cashback may be a bit much—the story isn’t the deepest, the script not the most profound—but the visuals are stunning and the construction inventive. Thus I was in great anticipation for his sophomore effort, the horror film The Brøken. Expectations were not the highest as the film did need the After Dark crew to pick up distribution to give it a limited run in theatres last Halloween, but I was looking forward to creepiness and suspense. Upon my viewing, opinions are mixed. This is an ambitious undertaking, no question, but I can’t shake the feeling that its 88-minute runtime might have been better served as a short subject. Frankly, the film feels as though it’s already an expanded version of a small scale success story, unfortunately, this somewhat fractured tale starts was created at a length that oversteps its weight.

The story is very intriguing and chilling in its been-done-before way. A mirror breaks during the course of a surprise birthday party for the patriarch of the McVey family, locking the five people in attendance into a world of confusion and darkness. Their evil doppelgangers from the mirror world have caught a glimpse of them all and are looking to enter our world by taking over their identities. Each shattering sound we hear becomes the entrance of a villainous version of our leads, looking for blood and a spot among humans. The ideas that a plot like this can conjure up are many, but Ellis decides to keep it all subtle and interior, making us guess throughout the duration about whether what we are seeing is real or just happening in lead Gina McVey’s injured mind. We as an audience can sense the change in characters’ actions, making us believe they have been replaced, yet we see them all through the eyes of Gina, post death-defying car collision. So, until the end, the whole film exists as a giant question, an enigma consisting of either psychological mutations or physical replacement, the latter of which means murder of the true person as a result.

While this journey towards the revelation of Gina’s true self is intriguing and worth following through to the end, the conclusion brings with it a contradiction of feelings. The direction it all goes towards is fantastic, definitely the correct choice, however, there is something lacking. No, it’s not the fact that Ellis decides to leave many questions unanswered and the plot open-ended, it’s something else, something deeper. You begin to recall the stunning imagery used along with the clunky, overlong sequences of overhead city shots and repetition of the car crash at the center of it all. All those pieces start to feel like deflection from what was going on, filler to pad out the final revelation, which—in both lesser and greater films—would have been the mid-way point continuing on to the answers that are left here to our imagination. This is just one more reason why I wish The Brøken were a short. If those moments that work were distilled down and compacted into a 30-40 minute tale, ending on the chilling revelation, this thing would have been phenomenal. As it is now, the length allows us to figure out the ending too early, ruining the suspense. The cloud lifts from Gina too slowly, giving us time to lose interest and therefore not be hit as hard by the blow it leads to. Rather then be stunned, we want more, a conclusion to justify the time we spent.

I feel as though this could have been cast with anyone and been okay. I’m a big fan of Lena Headey, but I don’t think her acting expertise necessarily brings anything to the table. This is not her fault, though, she plays a character in Gina that walks around as in a fog for the most part, a semi-amnesiac trying to figure out what happened before her accident and why those around her seem menacingly different from the loved ones she knows. I enjoyed both Asier Newman and Michelle Duncan as her brother and his girlfriend, both actors I’ve never seen before, proving that name recognition wasn’t an important motive, although I’m sure Headey’s involvement helped get the film financed. Only Richard Jenkins seems to add something more to his character. You see the grief and fatigue of a father who has been raising two children, by himself in a foreign land, for the past fifteen years after his wife had passed on.

Again, though, what really stand out with The Brøken are the visuals. Sean Ellis has a creative eye and he puts it to good use. Whereas he created something and then expanded upon it with Cashback, here he delves right into the full show, possibly prematurely. With every stunning shot comes a clunky passage that could have been improved or excised, padding that only serves to lose the audience rather than draw them in. A few of the angles and compositions are truly wonderful and some sequences disturbing to great effect. One moment of Melvil Poupaud as Stefan, altering his face into that of a demonic darkness, is memorable and a short shot of the eerily lit “room” behind Duncan’s hallway mirror is atmospherically gorgeous. Part of me wishes to have seen more of these glimpses into the parallel dimension, but part of me likes that it stayed away from using too much in lieu of sticking to Headey’s broken mind. That division really sums up my experience, though. This film has something special inside of it; sadly there is too much covering to allow it to really be a success.

The Brøken 6/10

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[1] Lena Headey stars as Gina McVey in After Dark Films’ The Broken (2009) Copyright © After Dark Films. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Michelle Duncan stars as Kate Coleman in After Dark Films’ The Broken (2009) Copyright © After Dark Films. All Rights Reserved.

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Gigli. That is all I have to say to begin this review. You may ask why, and I will tell you. Director Martin Brest has not worked in Hollywood since the debacle that was Gigli. After a decade and a half of quality films, his career was destroyed by the pairing of super couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. I really enjoy Meet Joe Black, (besides the ending); find Beverly Hills Cop to be highly entertaining; and have heard good things about Scent of a Woman despite Al Pacino’s Oscar winning over-the-top “Who-Hahs”, and now I can add Midnight Run to the mix of pre-implosion Brest goodness. With a great cast, including odd-couple Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin leading the way, a humorous script, and impressive action sequences on this cross-country trip gone awry, the film overcomes its 1980s atmosphere, (the first class plane set-up is exact to that used in the Wedding Singer, sorry, I had to point that out), to age gracefully and remain as good now as people I’ve heard say it was; those who had seen it back then.

De Niro is an ex-cop turned bounty hunter for a Los Angeles bail-bondsman—a slimy cretin like only Joe Pantoliano can do—that has been enlisted to capture the embezzling accountant of the mob boss that made him lose his job on the force. So, in one fell swoop, his Jack Walsh can make $100,000, get back at the criminal who took his life away, and put a crook behind bars as his self-righteous, by-the-books sensibilities like him to do. By by-the-books, I mean as far as not taking payoffs, not being on the payroll of a drug dealer, and not covering for cops who are. I don’t mean someone who takes the safety of his prisoner seriously, nor Miranda rights or any other creature comforts the people in his custody may deserve. He’ll handcuff you inside a train car bathroom, throw you into a rapid flowing river, toss you from a moving train, and lead you through a gunfight. But that is the kind of stuff that makes the film so much fun. If there weren’t antics and reason for De Niro and Grodin’s accountant “The Duke” to hate each other, their sarcasm and biting rapport would never come through.

And that is truly what makes Midnight Run so enjoyable to watch. The chemistry between these two leads is phenomenal. We’ve got the city cop, blue-collar mentality of Jack pitted against the intellectual, white-collared obnoxiousness of Jon Mardukas. Grodin basically epitomizes the annoying child you may have on a long trip that constantly asks whether you are there yet. His questions and unceasing fervor at which he attempts to get the answers would give anyone an ulcer as they try to keep their temper in check. This is vintage Grodin and makes you wonder where he has gone. Looking back at his career, he didn’t act in very many films, and when he did it was in smaller roles. However, the guy doesn’t deserve to go out with the Beethoven movies. Someone’s got to cast him in something, having only one credit to his name in the past fifteen years. As for De Niro, you may be able to call this the first sign of the comedic bent he has embraced in the last few years. Sadly, he has become a caricature of himself lately, but visiting this gem from 1988 definitely shows you the talent he has, the ability to go from serious to funny, especially with a guy like Grodin to bounce off of.

The script may be a bit obvious, at least as far as connecting the start to the finish. As for as the journey to get there, however, everything, including the kitchen sink, is thrown into the mix. Our duo has the feds on their tail, hitmen from Denis Farina’s mob boss Jimmy Serrano, (I still love how great this guy is at playing hard-ass wiseguys, yet he was a cop before turning to Hollywood), a competing bounty hunter looking to collect the cash, city police forces, people consorting behind their backs mucking things up, and whatever else you can think of. Jack Walsh is no pushover though, he is the kind of guy that sets his mind to something and follows it through to the end. Only caring for him and the future he hopes to eventually realize, you soon learn that he’ll do anything for self-preservation. The way he treats bounty hunter rival Marvin Dorfler, (supporting journeyman John Ashton), really gets this point across—use whomever until they aren’t needed anymore, then drop them off and continue on.

There are many little things that add to the overall success of the film as well. Yaphet Kotto’s FBI Agent Mosely becomes a lot of fun as he follows one step behind for the duration, the bumbling hitman are always enjoyable, (having one act like a child, playing around all the time while the other tries to talk to the boss helps), and just the subtle way in which De Niro’s past is revealed through his conversations with Grodin bring so much more to what would otherwise be a simple comic actioner. You do find out a lot about the leads through their actions and interactions with those they cross paths with. De Niro’s family life and moral compass eventually reveals the kind of man he is, hidden beneath the hard exterior, and Grodin’s reasons for what he did come out into the open as well. There are motivations behind each action and that attention to detail, coupled with a witty and strongly performed screenplay, shows what Brest can do when he’s given the pieces necessary to succeed. In other words, give him a second chance. I may think differently if I ever view Gigli, but for now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Midnight Run 8/10

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Who the hell are Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore? Did two guys who have a television show that debuted on a music video network seriously get the backing to make a feature length film? Is Hugh Hefner allowing anyone access to the Playboy Mansion these days? Does Craig Robinson really get paid that little for doing “The Office”? I have all these questions and just the one answer … I guess so, yes. Miss March, a movie that brings back the use of bodily fluids as a running gag to the big screen, hits theatres in America with wide release. I am stunned, completely stunned. These guys are my heroes because as bad as this film is, people will go see it. I’m sure they have a following from “The Whitest Kids U Know” and most horny males love the idea of Playboy, so despite the R-rating, this thing will probably make back its, I’m pretty sure, low budget and more. We may be looking at the newest comedy writers/producers in the world of Hollywood “ca-ching”. Two kids under thirty riding high on infantile jokes and stilted acting—it’s exactly what America’s youth loves today. For some reason Scary Movie-esque nonsense brings in more bucks than Apatow brand more often than not genius. Bravo boys for seeing the truth and going for it. Mediocrity sells big.

With a runtime under 90 minutes you can’t be too disappointed upon completion. I mean you wanted to see it right? You volunteered your time, so there must have been something to draw you in. It’s not like I didn’t laugh, I’m not going to lie in order to prove my point. There are a couple genuinely funny moments, and even the gross-out fecal and urinary moments have to bring a smile to your face, if not for the absurdity of what you are seeing than for the contagious nature of a packed room laughing. Peer pressure is a bitch. Sometimes you know you shouldn’t laugh, you don’t want to laugh, but oh my does the sound emanate anyways. Veteran Robinson definitely helps in this way, because the guy is great. Being a formidable presence, his ability to act embarrassed and weak works with his big man attitude. Like most of the film, his role of Horsedick.mpeg is very over the top, but it ends up succeeding. That is until the revelation at the end, just a tacked on brain-fart the boys probably laughed hysterically about when they came up with it during a drunken script session. Sorry, it wasn’t that funny. But that girl flying out the window? That never gets old no matter how many times you watch the trailer.

Don’t let me forget to mention “Reno 911’s” Cedric Yarbrough, the only other guy I had ever seen before in the entire movie. His deadpan is pitch-perfect, especially playing the doctor that has been watching over our protagonist for the last four years while he was in a coma. Oh, I guess I should at least gloss over the plot then if I bring up plot points. Cregger’s Eugene is laid up in the hospital because, after prom, before he was about to lose his virginity to his girlfriend, he allows the asinine Tucker, (directing cohort Moore), to get him drunk, causing him to fall down the stairs and have all sorts of things fall on his head. (By the way, Robinson’s mention of this incident is pretty funny later on; so nonchalant, so funny). Awakened by said friend four years later—hey, they’re homies … “lock it”—the two discover that Eugene’s ex has posed in Playboy after leading a high school life of abstinence and good wholesome girl next door sensibilities, (boy has that term mutated into its exact opposite these days thanks to Hef). The quest begins, a cross-country trip to find the girl that he loved. Will he bask in the glory of finding her after so long, or will he despise her for what became of her life, something that appears eerily similar to his brother’s life choices, a story that is far and away the best part of the film? Abstinence Now for sure.

So, in order to fill up space while the boys maneuver over to LA and the Bunny House, we get gag after gag, strung together loosely to make the semblance of a film. I liked the epilepsy gag, especially the Tucker character’s utter ignorance to what that condition entails, loved the brother story as mentioned, found the lesbian thread so fantasy-like absurd that it brought a smile, and enjoyed the stereotyped firemen’s quest for blood. I’m patting myself on the back now for finding that many things to call out as enjoyable amongst the mess that fills in the blanks. I’ll hand it to Cregger and Moore, they have a good rapport, they understand the comedy they are going for, and at times they seem to have the chops to pull it off, unfortunately “at times” just isn’t enough. Too often do they seem to be giving line readings, Moore saying something like “well how did everything end up with you and Cindi?” with so much inflection you know he is only saying it so the audience can find out. The dialogue is clunky and the performers not quite up to snuff, besides Robinson. Even Hef is awkward as he attempts to make fun of himself.

The jokes seem to repeat themselves so often that you begin to recall how the laugh was weak ten minutes ago when they did the gag the first time, so how would it work better now? Raquel Alessi’s Cindi is attractive and fun in her abundance of good girl façade early, and Molly Stanton’s Candance, the girl unlucky enough to call herself Tucker’s girlfriend, is a lot of fun. From her first appearance to the stabbing to the manhunt, her role is a standout. Cregger and Moore wrote her as probably the most three-dimensional person in the film; it’s a shame that they left so little for themselves. I understand idiocy brings the chuckles, but when you make it so present in the leads, the two people onscreen almost every second of the film, it gets a tad obnoxious and old. It doesn’t matter what I say, though, you’ll either go see Miss March or not. Me hating on it probably just makes you want to see it more.

Miss March 2/10

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[1] Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore. Photo Credit: Frank Masi
[2] Craig Robinson. Photo Credit: Frank Masi
TM and © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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Hollywood comedy these days is just one giant extended family tree. Everyone—and I mean everyone—has a connection and brings their friends along wherever they go. The new film I Love You, Man is no exception. This is a very good thing, because if I were to go on writer Larry Levin’s previous work, (scripting the Dr. Dolittle remake saga), I would have stayed far, far away. But instead I saw the Apatow flair with Jason Segel and regular Paul Rudd mixed with a little NBC love, (“The Office’s” Rashida Jones, “Earl’s” Jaime Pressly, and “SNL’s” Andy Samberg—who does steal his scenes with facial expressions alone—and Jane Curtain), and just a who’s who of supporting roles. Even director John Hamburg has done work with both Apatow and “The State” gang, much like Rudd. How could it fail right? While it does ends up on par with lesser Judd, see Knocked Up, it is a lot of fun for the duration. Possibly delving too much in the sentimental/heart category, it definitely wears its contributors’ multiple styles on its sleeve. And that’s a very good thing.

Okay, so here I am listening to The Duke Spirit and trying to think about what to say about the movie. I want to give some info on the plot, but singular moments of hilarity keep cropping up, pushing the story to the background. Really, though, a film like this does kind of use its script as a roadmap for gags. The story is obvious: guy asks girl to marry him, realizes he has no guy friends, goes on a journey looking for a best man, finds his platonic soulmate as a result, and watches his world fall apart when finally living his life. Will it all work out? You’ll have to watch to find out, unless of course you have gone to the movies at least once in the past decade … then I’m sure you can make a pretty educated guess. Instead of wasting time elaborating on the plot that you know completely if you’ve seen the trailer, I’ll talk about the laughs and the actors causing them, (yes, a couple times the laughter drowned out the next line, but thankfully filmmakers these days realize this and usually follow the big jokes with filler space or unnecessary dialogue).

You know it’s all about having a good time when guys like Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandraskhar or David Krumholtz appear for five seconds of face time. Heck, even Lou Ferrigno joins the crew for a fun role as himself. And what’s this? He also was in an episode of “Reno 911!”? The connections to these comedy cliques are staggering. Speaking of which, Thomas Lennon is great here as well. Sure the trailer gives away a lot of his role, but don’t be disappointed, he returns later on with a priceless moment. It’s not all about the glee at seeing familiar faces, though; the supporting cast really is utilized well and to the actors’ strengths. J.K. Simmons will be the consummate father figure forever now after Juno, Curtain is somewhat wasted but enjoyable, and Samberg is even funnier when you get the full story on his character, that which the preview edits out to just being his father’s best friend, along with Hank of course. Even Jon Favreau is classic as the prick husband to the bride Jones’ best friend Denise. The guy’s deadpan ambivalence and selfishness, complete with toothpick, really shine.

The reason his attitude works so well is that it plays off of Paul Rudd’s effeminate hero Pistol Pete. This isn’t the jerk he portrayed in Role Models; Rudd is the classic “nice guy” here. His love for Chocolat, gossiping with the girls at work, and penchant for getting hit on by gay men become the stereotypes that his character needs to break free of during his evolution. He tries so desperately hard to be cool that he slangs every word out of his mouth while in front of prospective “bros”, coming out as gibberish. Watching Segel’s reactions to the verbal diarrhea spewing from Rudd makes you wonder if those moments were ad-libbed. If not, credit Segel’s acting prowess, because each smile and laugh looked 100% genuine. With Jason’s Sydney, you really do get a mirror image of Peter, just the confident version. The two have so much in common, (love the Rush moments, including the band’s own cameo), that they also need each other to become more well-rounded. While Rudd needs to let loose and be a man sometimes, Segel needs to take notes as well, as far as growing up and realizing life comes with consequences.

And once again, like most of these guys’ comedies have been since The 40-Year Old Virgin, it is so self-referential to the industry. These characters have favorite bands and movies and actors. They impersonate “The Hulk” and James Bond; they watch HBO and visit Legoland with the kids. In other words, these people are like us only placed onscreen. I think that is what works so well for these films, the audience they are marketed towards can relate completely with what is going on. Yes the stakes are a bit heightened: puke becomes a plot point and the use of urinal cakes as a marketing tool is explained, but underneath it all is your life experiences … only played by pretty people. There is a lot to enjoy with I Love You, Man and if nothing else it just keeps the laughs going until Funny People arrives. But maybe that’s rude of me to say. It’s not like all these films are just warm-ups to Apatow’s creations, they exist on their own with success. As long as they all continue to work together and migrate into each other’s films, we the viewers can only rejoice at our good fortune.

I Love You, Man 7/10

And don’t forget to stay for the credits. Joe Lo Truglio gets his moment and more laughs come out as an epilogue, closing off some plot points before the theatre lights come back up.

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[1] Jason Segel stars as Sydney Fife and Paul Rudd stars as Peter Klaven in DreamWorks Pictures’ I Love You, Man (2009). Photo credit by Scott Garfield. Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Paul Rudd stars as Peter Klaven and Jon Favreau stars as Barry in DreamWorks Pictures’ I Love You, Man (2009) Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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I need to look into the plethora of comedies coming down the pipe for who wrote and directed them. I watched the trailer for Role Models and thought it looked funny enough. But it was Seann William Scott—don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty good, I just didn’t have it high on my list, even though my boy Paul Rudd co-starred. So, here I was, months later and finally ready to take a peek, and the starting credits just made me excited for what was to follow. I had no idea that the crew behind “The State” were integral in the production, both writing and starring. Whether my memory of that show holds up to its actually enjoyment, I don’t know, however, what they have been doing lately has been comic genius. Even in the more subtle collaborations like Diggers, the laughs were big and the comedy worthwhile. Thankfully, director David Wain and co-writer Ken Marino brought the star of that film over, Rudd, to help them once again. The guy is pure gold these days and even though this new film is pretty run-of-the-mill story-wise, the characters and antics are anything but.

Two man-childs screw up on the job, (performing at school auditoriums to sell kids on an unhealthy energy drink to take the place of narcotics), by disrupting the peace, destroying property, and abusing a police officer. Rudd’s Danny’s girlfriend, who broke up with him just before the incident, is a lawyer and gets jail time reduced to community service for the Sturdy Wings organization, (got to admit I really like the logo for this made-up entity in the film). Danny and William Scott’s Wheeler find themselves paired with the two toughest cases in the program: Augie Farks, a nerdy teen who entrenches himself in a live-action D&D world called LAIRE, and Ronnie Shields, a foul-mouthed grade schooler from a single mother home, acting out to push all those who try and reach him away. Assigned by Wings founder Gayle Sweeney, (the always memorable Jane Lynch in another gem of a role as an ex-drug addict prostitute who found her calling in “servicing” the children); they are set up to fail to be sent to the big house. While Wheeler begins to enjoy time with a child as crude as himself, Danny can’t get out of his funk, a depression that continues to escalate, as he can’t even bring himself to call his co-worker a friend … they just work together.

The interactions with Augie and Ronnie, (Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bobb’e J. Thompson respectively), are definitely the high points of a very funny film. I hate to say that McLovin’ will forever be typecast as the loser geek—his nasally voice and gawky features don’t help the fact—but, for now, it’s working for him. Wearing a cape and fighting grown men in costumes who speak old English, Augie is both embarrassing and endearing, showing a side of us all, that need to be unique and different, to escape the monotony of our horrible lives, no matter what cost to our own public image. As for Thompson’s Ronnie, you won’t get anything funnier. This kid is fantastic: cussing, slapping people in the face without warning, and bringing out the cute when necessary. I don’t know whether to condemn or condone the parents of this boy, because he’s definitely got something, I’m just not sure if it is morally right to let him have it. Both boys, though, fit right into the craziness of the movie, bringing out the inevitable discovery of Danny and Wheeler’s need to dismantle their selfish selves, and adding fodder for and the creation of multiple laugh-out-loud moments.

Supporting this foursome team is a lot of familiar faces, many who have worked with each other before. Lynch is a staple in this genre and joining her are a couple guys that have been cropping up lately too. Both Ken Jeong, (as the King of LAIRE), and Joe Lo Truglio, (a fellow countryman of Augie’s), add some awkward brilliance to that thread of the story. You may remember both from bit parts in Pineapple Express … someone needs to get the Apatow gang and “The State” gang together for a film. As for members of that troupe, Ken Marino and Kerri Kenney have fun as Augie’s parents, director David Wain himself tries to play the acoustic guitar, and even “UCB” alum Matt Walsh comes to join in the fun. Let’s also not forget the beautiful Elizabeth Banks as Danny’s love. She may not be integral to the humor, but she is the rock that his character works towards, and thus becomes a reason for some of the insane activities that occur.

Yes, the kooky kids and their inclusion in the sordid ways of two screw-up adults would be funny anywhere, but add in the medieval wars, the teaching of an eleven year old on how to disguise his cleavage viewing, and the cryptic words spewing from Jane Lynch’s mouth each time she’s onscreen, (along with her prize volunteer weirdo A.D. Miles), and you can’t lose. References to pop culture are infused throughout, adding a level of relevance as well. We have Kiss entering the land of LAIRE, Rudd quoting every romantic film his character has seen, a gut-busting joke at Harry Potter’s expense, and even a mention of Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s own regular Marvin Hamlisch. Sure its obvious, sure its vulgar, (I did view the un-rated version), but there is enough heart and an abundance of quality laughs to make checking Role Models out a good move.

Role Models 7/10

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[1] Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott and Bobb’e J. Thompson in Universal Pictures’ Role Models (2008) Copyright © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Jane Lynch stars as Gayle Sweeney in Universal Pictures’ Role Models (2008) Copyright © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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The Palme d’Or winning film Entre les murs (The Class) couldn’t be more deserving of the award, or the chance at winning an Oscar to go along with it. Star François Bégaudeau writes a screenplay, based on his own book and experiences, about the trials and tribulations caused by the oftentimes volatile relationship between teacher and student. This is not only a great film, but also, in my opinion, a very important one. Its cinema verité style lends a documentary feel to the proceedings, inhabited by people playing characters with their own names, mostly, if not all, surely amateurs to the trade. What occurs as a result is a real life glimpse at the current state of education and children who are so much older at 14 and 15 then we remember ourselves being. It’s no longer a job to mold minds and create a world where anything is possible; now teachers must multi-task as security guard, judge, friend, educator, and whatever else might come up. With computers and absentee parents, not to mention the language barriers of a multi-racial school in France, inhabited by refugees and immigrants, these kids grow very self-sufficient and insolent in their interactions with adults. The line is so thin and the rules so skewed, The Class shows the kind of tightrope act being held accountable for a group of kids’ futures can be while getting no support, either monetarily or from parents.

What director Laurent Cantet does so well is take Bégaudeau’s tales and show the audience both sides. It isn’t always about the teacher and his difficulty reaching the children, it isn’t always a lack of support from the parents who would rather pawn their kid off on this publicly paid babysitter, but it’s also the fear and shame the kids may feel, unable to do any better because they don’t think they can. The school in which the film takes place contains people of all races and backgrounds, joined together in a bid to move on to a good vocational school. Every teacher looks at each other’s class list, telling the new ones who the troublemakers are as well as the handful of good ones. Each child has a chip on his/her shoulder as a survival trait, not necessarily because they are bad kids.

When you look at Carl, a transfer who was expelled from his previous school, you will see the intellect and maturity to viewpoints someone his age can have. To acknowledge the fact that while he may behave now doesn’t mean he’s been tamed or cured, it just means he’s found a more comfortable environment, is an interesting idea. He will hold back his temper and even try to help prevent a fight in the classroom, but he does it because he wants to. While they may understand these feelings and real world attitudes, however, they are still too young to separate those emotions and manifest them constructively. But rather than the teachers seeing this and trying to mold it, they think too much of themselves—that they have been the cure—staying on the surface and never delving deep enough to notice the problem lying latent in the background. By moving on so soon they miss the opportunity to prevent a future conflict once the sleeping giant awakes. Yet you can’t really blame them, because they have a class of some twenty personalities all clashing together. To move on from one to the next is a natural reaction, and a necessary one.

You really get a sense of duality from the film, showing how similar both sides are. So much is spoken about respect, but shouldn’t the educator respect the child as well? You are the adult, you are the one with the sense of self-control; there should be no slips of the tongue, no name calling, no matter what. I love the fact that these teachers speak with each other to decide on a punishment point scale. The pros and cons are weighed. Sure a system is needed to clearly show consequences, but the opposite view also holds true. If you tell a child they have six points until judgment, you basically give them a free pass until five points, when the kid could stop, accumulate commendations, and start all over again. It is a flawed system, and always will be, much the same with disciplinary hearings. Couldn’t you argue that having the ability to expel a child just gives you the out of not having to deal with the problem? As an educator, your job is to reach these children, give them a sense of stability, but if you can just punt the problem away, what incentive do you have to actually tackle the problem? It is such a cyclical world that people will get bounced around and never helped—teachers feeling invincible and in the right, children feeling abandoned and eventually falling deeper and deeper into the abyss of ambivalence.

Credit to all involved because it couldn’t have been easy. It would be intriguing to know how much of what the kids in the film say was scripted or not. They all really feel as though they go to school together and live in this world, everyone playing himself, essentially, except for Franck Keita as the troubled Souleyman—the key to the entire story. He is the epitome of what an intelligent child without any drive can be. To see the good, (excelling at a photo self-portrait), and the bad helps to express his humanity. With all the potential in the world finally coming through only to be pushed back when things get tough, the question of pride and nationality show face, turning on an intrinsic defense mechanism superceding the drive to better oneself. It’s not only the kids that excel, though, but also the teachers. My favorite scene is probably of one that comes into the faculty lounge utterly defeated. His rant is so on the nose and true that no one else in the room can say anything, because they all feel the same. It’s a powerful moment, trying desperately to see the point of going on in an environment that seems so hopeless.

In my opinion, the only way to rectify it all is to bring us back to the power structure of teacher and student. We have become so fearful of parents and failure and responsibility that we’ve become friends with those we are supposed to be educating. Once you build a rapport and relationship, becoming more equal than superior, you are in a world of trouble. The principal is portrayed as a weak man, unable to come to a decision, always asking the others for a majority rule. Why do his job and make a choice when he can just say the “staff agreed”? And honestly … student representatives at a staff meeting discussing grades and behavior in class? How can you ever think they won’t tell their friends everything that happened? A teacher should have the freedom to speak his mind about a student, to voice an opinion that maybe they’ve hit their ceiling and need a new angle to be taken. But once the child finds out, all sense of self-worth is gone; all sense of accomplishment out the window. If the person who is supposed to be on your side, helping you grow up, loses faith, what more is there to strive for?

Entre les murs is a heartbreaking story of the future of our planet. It shows us the smart kids mixed in with the troublemakers, to see a teacher’s time divided by both factions, never able to push the good kids to challenge them and never able to reach the “bad” ones because they need singular attention. François Bégaudeau is amazing at playing himself, the conflicted teacher that is only too human. When Louise and Esmeralda betray him, I would have acted the same way—wrongly—too. A person can only take so much before the pile gets so high, the obstacles so many, that breaking is unavoidable. However, there are those other stories of Wey beating his language barrier to excel or my favorite character Khoumba and her quest for respect. She has the gumption to write a note, so eloquently written and honest that you can’t fault her actions without reprimanding Bégaudeau. The schoolhouse dynamic has been forever changed and I for one know I could never stomach being a teacher in it. The rules have mutated and I credit those who keep at it so much more now. It’s a thankless job with little support, and its rewards are becoming fewer and fewer each year as society becomes more jaded and disenchanted.

Entres les murs 9/10

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[1] Wei Huang as Wei, Esmeralda Ouertani as Sandra, and Rachel Regulier as Khoumba. Photo taken by Pierre Milon, 2007, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights reserved.
[2] Francois Begaudeau as Francois, Franck Keita as Souleyman, and Boubacar Toure as Boubacar. Photo taken by Pierre Milon, 2007, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights reserved.

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After twenty years the ultimate graphic novel, a tale many hold to be amongst the greatest stories ever written, illustrated or not, has finally been brought to cinematic life. Many tried and failed to find the way to do it. Should an epic tale set in such a specific period of time—the Cold War of the eighties—be updated? Should the bleak nature of humanity depicted be toned down? Will lunatics and delinquents dressed up in costumes pretending to be superheroes bring in a public more interested in reality television then something based on a picture book? Warner Bros. needs to be given a lot of credit for taking the chance, rolling the dice, and ultimately paying the price (Fox sucks) to allow it all to be told onscreen as it should. With Zack Snyder at the helm and co-creator Dave Gibbons along for the ride, Watchmen becomes a visceral assault on our sensibilities, our morals, and our existence in just the same way the novel did with its dark and cynically written prose. Yes, there are changes, in both the details and the big events, but in the end it all comes down to the same question. What is an acceptable price to be paid for the continuation of humanity? It’s a question that one hopes will never be alive to watch the results of, but in a time of aggression, paranoia, and fear—not knowing whether the enemy would strike first, but always ready to strike back—where oblivion was an inevitability, it begs for an answer, no matter how atrocious the truth may be.

Here is an alternate Earth that looks much like the one we remember. Americans began to see the violence and suffering occurring in Vietnam and the unavoidable mirroring of such at home. A select few decide to take matters into their own hands, to match the bad guys hiding behind masks with some of their own. Called The Minutemen, these “heroes” group together to fight crime and make the world a better place. Not all were morally sound, but then who would be dressing up to risk your life for another without ever garnering any true praise as yourself, but just the façade you created? None have powers; none are from another planet. These aren’t comic book stars, but ordinary people with certain skill sets and the mental capacity to go against the norm. Only when a freak accident in an astro-physics lab occurs does the world get its first “Superman”. Coined Dr. Manhattan, this former human and current assimilation of atoms with the ability to manipulate time and space, becomes the savior of mankind, or its ultimate destroyer. Thank God he’s American … right?

History now takes a turn. Nixon, in his infinite wisdom, ask Manhattan, aka Jon Osterman, to help end the battle overseas. A few molecular breakdowns of the enemy and mass surrendering, in person to this God-like creature, and the war was over, America had won. Tricky Dick now has the ultimate weapon on his side, becomes a permanent resident of the White House and believes that as long as Jon is here, the Russians would never dare attack. Danger has been averted, the public no longer needs masked heroes to fight their battles, so the Keene Act is drafted and the Watchmen, the second generation of the Minutemen crew, is disbanded, its members either outed or in hiding. Up until now, everything has pretty much stayed true to the novel, but the aftermath of the Act changes for the big screen. Fossil fuels become an agenda head for Adrian Veidt’s Ozymandias, who teams with Doc Manhattan to find a free power to replace our necessity for oil and gas. Without the jockeying for control over power, there would be no wars. An infinite amount of energy would bring peace; that is, if what we are told is truly what is occurring. With the murders of masked avengers and the discovery of cancer in those close to Manhattan, conspiracies begin to fly around, allegiances change, and the faithful lose their bearings. The world is on the brink of extinction and the people just get angrier and more violent as a result. Survival once again falls into the hands of the vigilantes—our saviors—with unchecked power; the ones we fear most become our last line of defense.

The beauty of the novel lies in the details. With immense scope and mythology, each character was given a complete history, an origin to the man or woman each became. Snyder and company don’t turn their backs on this fact, allowing the film to proceed with its disjointed narrative, going back and forth between the present and the past that came before. We catch glimpses of how each evolved into the people they’ve become, whether that be even more invested in his convictions, (Rorschach), living a lie that the best times of her life were forced upon her by a mother who’s limelight was fading, (Silk Spectre), lazy and out of shape from the fear that replaced the confidence when the costume was shut away in the basement, (Nite Owl II), or a self-made millionaire with a grip on business and government, (Ozymandias). Everything shown leads up to the climax in which each member of Watchmen rejoin with the fate of the world on the table and the impossible choice to either be made or stopped.

Unfortunately, the cinematic version is flawed because of the exact same issue. With so much detail and intricacy of plot and characterization, something has to be left on the cutting room floor. Personally, I believe the filmmakers made the perfect maneuvers to solve the problem of overkill. However, for someone to come in, without any knowledge of the story they are about to experience, it can be very daunting, very inaccessible, and ultimately unworthy of their time. What becomes a masterpiece of tone and literary adaptation for those familiar with the mythology ends up just a boring, bloated, action-less superhero saga that causes more laughter and headshaking then fervor or intrigue. As a result, Watchmen is more of a companion piece to the novel, something to view in conjunction with what is one of American literature’s finest works. It is just too much to assimilate for the layperson, with easter eggs and in-jokes hidden in plain sight for the cult follower only window-dressing and passed-over minutiae to the novice. Possibly not considered a flaw, (that duty goes to the great song list comprising its horrid soundtrack that is so out-of-place it causes laughter rather than enhancing emotion at any turn, although I did enjoy the score), it is still a detriment to gaining universal appeal. There will be just as many people declaring the film a failure and waste of time as those hailing it as the greatest comic book adaptation ever.

But enough of those small points of contention; there is just too much more to love. You cannot deny the sheer brilliance of the special effects work, from the glowing blue body of Manhattan to the flying Archie to the beauty of Mars. The fight choreography is superb, just the right mix of sharp cuts and extended sequences to show the actual hits and not just the contact. Action fans will not be disappointed with the quality here, just the quantity. And as for direction, Snyder uses the novel as a guideline/storyboard pre-destined for the Cineplex, breathing life into the two-dimensional page. So much is almost exact to Gibbons’ drawings and so much is crammed into every frame. Just watching the opening credit sequence shows the care for detail that was taken, showing so much to make the fan cry for joy and the newcomer scratch his head in confusion. I don’t even fault the decision to alter the ending, allowing the climax to be more relevant for the real world yet still maintaining the same ultimate end. To stick to the book here would have alienated even more people into dismissing the story as a misguided farce rather then the biting political/social commentary it is.

The one thing I believe everyone can appreciate, though, is the stellar cast. With Malin Akerman being the only weak link, (sorry my dear, you look the part, but just don’t quite have the acting chops yet to pull it off), there is little left to be desired. Billy Crudup’s passive monotone is exactly what you’d imagine from Manhattan, Matthew Goode’s affluent inflection and precise delivery of his words just the right amount of ego and genius Ozymandias contains, and Patrick Wilson’s bumbling loner-geek brings Dan Dreiberg to life, showing all the insecurities that vanish when inside the Nite Owl suit. Where the true brilliance lies, however, is with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach. Morgan’s unceasing grin and amorality shows both the loathsome nature of his existence as well as the ultimate mirror showing the world its true face of greed, corruption, and selfishness. He truly is the embodiment of the American Dream. And Haley’s Rorschach becomes our entry-point and guide to the tale. His skewed sense of reality and justice makes him a villain, a murdering criminal, yet you can’t help but wish you could have his conviction and fearlessness to do whatever it takes. The ultimate badass, his Walter Kovacs might be the most flawed role of the bunch, but that just makes him even more likeable and relatable because, in the end, we are all flawed creatures pretending to be righteous and good.

If Watchmen shows us anything it is the ambivalence of a planet. It uncovers the truth of humanity—all our faults, our insecurities, and our willingness to destroy in order to overcompensate and fool ourselves into believing we are right. Whether you agree with the outcome, no mater which side you find yourself aligning with at the end, it is tough to say—and believe—that it could ever finish any other way. While you purists may balk at the conclusion, angered at the changes and mad that you’ve been cheated out of a cell by cell reenactment of a book, I just say watch it again. If you want the story, read the novel for the hundredth time. However, if you want a singular vision, a representation of an epic tale that begs to be told, made relevant for the 21st century while still staying true to its origins and time period, open your eyes and bask in the glory that is Watchmen. To all those of you confused and turned off, expecting violence and fighting and action, but only given dialogue, politics, science, and more dialogue—go out and read the source material. Hopefully, if this film does anything besides rack up millions and millions of dollars, it will open the eyes of a new generation to literature and the power of words to cause change and unite because, honestly, if we don’t educate ourselves and begin to feel something for our neighbors, Watchmen may become more than just commentary. And the reality of that is just too scary to fathom.

Watchmen 9/10

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[1] PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl II, MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II and JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Paramount Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Watchmen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] Jon Osterman (BILLY CRUDUP) is transformed into Dr. Manhattan in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Paramount Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Watchmen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Paramount Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Watchmen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


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