Archive for the 'H-Man' Category

The Hunt

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (Give us your rating!!)
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Guilty until proven innocent.

The Hunt

The H-Bomb:¬† Danish school teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is in the middle of putting his life back together after a divorce, working in a kindergarten and trying to win full custody of his son.¬† He is well liked in his small community, and is very popular with the children he teaches.¬† All of that changes, however, when he is accused by one of his young students of inappropriately exposing himself.¬† The student, it turns out, is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of Lucas’s best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen).¬† Assuming that little Klara has no reason to make any of this up, the school officials suspend Lucas while the authorities investigate.

Unfortunately for Lucas, the repercussions do not end there, as rumors of his alleged misdeeds spread throughout town.¬† Before he knows it, he’s been ostracized from most of his friends, he’s lost all visitation rights with his son, and other children at the kindergarten are starting to come forward with allegations of their own.¬† What’s most distressing to Lucas, is that he knows he’s innocent, but he can’t get anyone, even people he’s known his entire life, to listen.¬† And even if he is one day exonerated, there’s still the question of whether or not his reputation will ever recover.

Co-written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, and nominated for a 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Hunt is one hell of a disturbing movie.¬† One of the most disturbing I’ve seen in recent memory.¬† I have about as much sympathy for a child molester as I would for a Nazi war criminal; however, I do have to wonder, what if someone is falsely accused of such a heinous crime?¬† We can hope that justice will prevail and they will be cleared, but what about what happens to them in the meantime?¬† To their name, their reputation, their social and professional lives?

It’s the kind of crime in which, figuratively, one is guilty until proven innocent, and just the accusation alone, no matter how baseless, is enough to completely ruin a person.¬† To give an example from my own life, years back I was working on the crew of an independent feature, and the cinematographer was a fairly experienced guy who I got along with quite well.¬† One day, the director discovered something about the guy’s background: that he was on the sex offender registry for child pornography charges.¬† My impression of him changed in an instant.¬† As it happened, the guy was guilty, and the rest of the cast and crew rightly wanted nothing more to do with him.¬† But even if he turned out to be innocent, I still never would have looked at him in the same light again.

That is what The Hunt conveys, in low key but effective fashion, that the accusation alone can be irreversibly damning.¬† Here, Lucas’¬† good name is tarnished by something completely beyond his control.¬† By taking a naturalistic, almost documentary-like approach, the film simply shows him trying to cope with this waking nightmare, while never hitting a false note.¬† With the townsfolk looking at him with contempt and distrust, people vandalizing his home, and, predictably, someone doing something horrible to his beloved dog (and that was very predictable), we are made to feel his pain, his confusion, and his growing sense of frustration.

We know Lucas is innocent.¬† That he’s a good, honest man who is entirely undeserving of this persecution. That is why The Hunt is so troubling.¬† Downright fucking scary, when one stops to think about it.¬† Not simply because the events depicted are entirely believable, but because they could happen literally to anyone.¬† I could be Lucas, you could be Lucas, anyone could be Lucas, and things could play out exactly as they do here, with people, even those closest to you, assuming the absolute worst.¬† That’s what the film drives home, that it is all so frighteningly plausible.

The movie’s believability is aided in so small way by Mikkelsen’s pitch perfect lead performance.¬† Taking a break from playing larger-than-life villains in things like Casino Royale and TV’s Hannibal, Mikkelsen is surprisingly subtle and down to earth as Lucas.¬† He portrays Lucas with warmth and a sense of dignity, someone whose patience is constantly being tested, and whose sanity is ultimately pushed to the edge.¬† Mikkelsen’s work here is tremendously layered, and authentic in every way.¬† This is by far the best performance I’ve ever seen from him.

As powerful as Mikkelsen and the story itself are, I can’t help but wonder if The Hunt would have benefited from being more ambiguous.¬† What if, instead of making it clear that Lucas is innocent, it was less certain, if we the audience weren’t entirely sure if he was guilty or not.¬† Yes, it might have changed the nature and the meaning of the film, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more effective, at least in a mind fuck kind of way, if we simply didn’t know for sure.

That stated, The Hunt, as it is, is still one positively chilling motion picture.¬† It’s most definitely European in its mood and pacing, and it is subtitled, but don’t let that scare you off, as it is a film very worthy of your time.¬† It’s a provocative, realistic look at how a single little lie can destroy a life, and it is absolutely compelling, all the way up to it’s very troubling final scene.

 

 

Robocop (2014)

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

***

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 3.00 out of 5)
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I’d buy that for a dollar‚Ķ and not a penny more.

RoboCop 2014

The H-Bomb:¬† In the year 2028, America’s wars are fought by combat droids developed by the robo-tech giant, OmniCorp.¬† Having proven to be very successful overseas, OmniCorp’s CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) wants to bring the droids stateside, rewire them for urban pacification, and deploy them in the crime ridden streets of America’s cities, starting with Detroit.¬† The problem is, the use of these robots on U.S. soil is illegal, because, as some in congress see it, police work should be left to human beings, who actually have a conscience and are capable of making moral decisions.

Sellars, the enterprising fellow that he is, finds a loophole to this law: Why not put a human inside a robot?  So, with a legal enough solution at hand, Sellars puts his top scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) on the case of finding a maimed police officer to fit the bill.  Enter Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit detective who was recently blown to bits via car bomb while investigating a gun smuggling ring.  The good Dr. Norton is able to salvage the parts of Murphy that still work, the heart, the lungs, the spine, the right hand, and perhaps most importantly, the brain.

Norton fuses those living components with a slick robotic body and thus, RoboCop is born‚Ķ almost.¬† See, Murphy’s brain, his intelligence, personality, and memories are all intact, so when he gets a gander at his new body, it takes him some time to readjust, as I’m sure you can imagine.¬† After some vigorous training and programming at their facility in China, OmniCorp thinks they have a robot cop they can control while giving Murphy the “illusion of free will,” and they bring him back to Detroit to start cleaning up the streets.

At first, all is well, with RoboCop kicking criminal ass all over the Motor City.¬† He’s a big hit with the public, and OmniCorp stands to make a ton of money, since it looks like their combat droids may very well be sanctioned for use in the U.S., after all.¬† But, an issues arises, Murphy starts thinking about his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son (John Paul Ruttan), who have been kept away from him for weeks.¬† He then defies his programming when he stops following company orders, and starts investigating his own murder.

OmniCorp has a very real problem on their hands; a part man, part machine that’s beyond their command.¬† Sellars is going to have to keep this contained while quietly disposing of Murphy.¬† Sadly for Mr. Sellars, this is fucking RoboCop we’re talking about, and he’s not about to be disposed of by anyone.

Just to lay it all out, this RoboCop ain’t shit compared to the 1987 original.¬† That film, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a bullet-to-the-balls satire of 80’s corporatism and is hands down one of the greatest action movies ever made.¬† This remake/reboot/re-whatever-you-want-to-call-it, is a watered down, defanged, and downright pussified version that doesn’t have a fraction of the original’s potency.¬† However, watching this re-imagining as a standalone movie, it’s not half-bad.¬† It will never be the classic that the first movie is, but it could have been far, far worse (ahem, Total Recall refake).¬† I’ll put it this way, it’s far better than either of the wretched RoboCop sequels from the early 90’s.¬† At least this one had the decency not to include any robot ninjas or psychotic 12-year-old crime bosses.

Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha, who made the brutally fantastic Elite Squad films, the remake updates the backdrop from the Reagan 80’s to a post-war on terror world.¬† The action is mostly bloodless, and while it’s passable for the most part, it’s really nothing amazing.¬† I did like the agility of this new RoboCop, who’s able to jump, dodge, and dive, as opposed to simply lumbering about.¬† Robo’s new physicality is cool to watch, but most of the action sequences, particularly the climax at OmniCorp, are lacking any real oomph and seem weirdly half-baked.

Also lacking are the movie’s villains, with the single exception of Keaton, who gets the best role he’s had in years as OmniCorp’s duplicitous CEO.¬† He is slimy good and I loved him.¬† The other bad guys, including Jackie Earle Haley’s assholish mercenary, are sketchily defined and under-used.¬† Not to keep going back to the original, but that one gave us such memorable cretins as Kurtwood Smith’s cooly sadistic Clarence Boddicker, and Ronny Cox’s ruthless corporate cut throat, Dick Jones.¬† This one gives us a couple of bland crooked cops and some boring Rutger Hauer lookalike.¬† YAWN.

So, while Robo’s villains score a big fat zero, the movie does make up for it, to an extent, with its media satire, which is mainly delivered by Samuel L. Jackson as a blowhard TV commentator.¬† Unsubtly named Pat Novak, he is very much a jab at the Fox News style of host, but Jackson plays him with relish and gets just about all the laugh out loud moments in the film.¬† That bit where he blows his stack and starts screaming “Motherf(bleep)” towards the end is classic SLJ.

Another aspect I like is something that hasn’t been explored since the first film, Murphy’s humanity.¬† I say the remake actually one-ups the original on this point.¬† Here, Murphy retains his human personality, so we see his pain and anguish when he realizes he’s been stripped of his body and his life.¬† The fact that he is fully aware of who he used to be, and has to struggle with that throughout, is an interesting new angle that adds depth to the character.¬† Some will say that this approach makes Murphy seem more like EmoCop than RoboCop, but I beg to differ.¬† I say it makes Murphy more complex, and performance wise, Kinnaman nails it.¬† He may not be Peter Weller, but he’s not trying to be.¬† This is a new take on the mechanical crime fighter, and I’m down with that.

Other touches that work in the movie’s favor are the inclusions of Murphy’s wife, Clara, and the good natured scientist, Dr. Norton.¬† Only seen in brief flashbacks before, Clara is fleshed out into a full on supporting character, a woman who refuses to give up on her husband, and is played to perfection by Cornish, who is clearly giving it her all.¬† As for Oldman, as the well meaning Dr. Norton… well, he’s Gary fucking Oldman, what else is there to say?¬† After decades of wowing us by playing creeps and weirdos, he shows us, like he did in the The Dark Knight Trilogy, that he can be every bit as compelling in a sympathetic role.

In case you haven’t caught on, it’s the cast of RoboCop that carries it such a long way and makes it a much better movie than it has any right to be.¬† As a staunch lover of the original film, I went into this expecting, and even wanting, to hate it.¬† But I honestly didn’t.¬† Now, when I start comparing it to the original‚Ķ yeah, it suffers big time.¬† The first film gave us so many memorable moments that were just money, from the failed ED-209 demonstration, to Robo shooting a would-be rapist in the crotch, to the guy melting from the toxic waste, and the car that hits him‚Ķ the remake gives us nothing that even comes close to any of that.

The fact that Robo trades his signature Auto-9 for a souped-up taser is a telltale sign that this lacks all the edge and bite of Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece.¬† But, again, judging it on its own merits, I say that RoboCop, the remake, is a solid, though somewhat forgettable, action flick.¬† A decent way to kill a couple of hours‚Ķ just make sure you kill those hours at a matinee showing.

 

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 4.50 out of 5)
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Nothing exceeds like excess.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The H-Bomb: Who is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio)? Well, long and short of it, he’s a coke head, a pill popper, a drunk, a sex addict, an asshole, and one of the most successful brokers on Wall Street. He came from humble beginnings, starting out in the 1980’s as “pond scum” at a brokerage firm, but before the first day was out, he was taken under the wing of hotshot, smooth talking trader Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who showed him the tricks of the trade and taught him a most valuable lesson: how to make money. Not to make money for the client, fuck the client, but how to make money for himself.

Jordan took the lesson to heart, and for a while, things were going great. Then the market crashed, his firm went under, and he was out of a job. But Jordan isn’t about to let something like that get him down. After all, he was put on this Earth to get rich, period. So, he takes a position at some store front firm selling penny stocks, and before long, he’s showing everyone in that rinky dink office how to spin worthless stocks into thousands of dollars with smoke and mirrors, and some silver tongued sales talk.

Pretty soon, Jordan is starting his own firm, Stratton Oakridge, with a new right hand man, schlubby Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in tow, and starts making money hand over fist. Next thing Jordan knows, he’s the king of the world; throwing decadent parties in his office, snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s ass crack, popping quaaludes like their baby aspirin, buying yachts and mansions, and best of all, courting, banging, and marrying Naomi (Margot Robbie), a blond bombshell who turns heads everywhere she goes.

By the mid-90’s, Jordan is living the dream. But every dream must come to an end, as a number of Jordan’s business ventures have been less than legal, and the authorities, the FBI in particular, are starting to take notice. On top of that, his hard partying and substance abuse are getting completely out of hand. Maybe Jordan will finally learn that there’s more to life than drinking, drugging, and fucking. Maybe he’ll learn that money, as the saying goes, can’t buy happiness‚Ķ then again, maybe not.

Awards season is once again upon us, and as per usual during this period, I am seeing many a critic compiling top ten lists of what they feel are the best movies of the past year, and one title that seems to be appearing on every single list, often towards the top, is Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street. Well, not to be contrarian, but if I were to compile a top ten list of my own, then The Wolf of Wall Street would not be on it. It would make my top twenty list, but even then, it would be somewhere towards the bottom.

I’m not saying that it’s in any way a bad movie. I did rate it four out of five stars, which, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is a positive rating, and as entertainment, the movie does deliver in spades. Adapting the real life Jordan Belfort’s memoir, Scorsese employs his typical cinematic trickery; his snappy montages, his striking visual eye, his dark sense of humor, and his pop music soundtrack, to create a visceral, non-stop orgy of excess. A twisted morality tale revolving around a major league douche bag consumed with unquenchable greed and ambition. And for the most part, the film works.

For the first two hours, it’s wickedly funny, brutally audacious, and just wildly entertaining on every level. If Scorsese had ended it after two hours, then he very well could have had one of the very best films of the year. Unfortunately, he inexplicably felt that the movie needed to be three hours long, and by the third hour, the non-stop decadence just became too damn much. I can only watch this guy snort so much coke, give so many bombastic pep talks, and fuck so many women, before it starts to feel repetitive and numbing. When the film finally reaches its overdue conclusion, I had long stopped having fun, and I long stopped caring. Towards the end I was thinking, “Will the feds please just throw this piece of shit in prison so I can go have a cigarette?”

I might be ruffling feathers by daring to criticize Scorsese the Great and Powerful, but I’m not budging on this point, three hours is way too long to spend with a cretin like Jordan Belfort, and the fact that Scorsese didn’t really seem to have anything to say about the guy didn’t help. Like I said, it is a morality tale, but the hedonism is heaped on so heavily, that I can’t help but wonder if the moral of the story gets buried under all the mountains of blow. Scorsese would have had a much more effective film if it weren’t so indulgently overlong.

But, the bloated running time and sense of repetition aside, The Wolf of Wall Street is still one hell of a good movie, featuring yet another knockout lead performance from DiCaprio. He’s once again up for the Best Actor Oscar, and though I don’t think he’ll be taking home the statue this year, it won’t be from lack of trying. With Belfort, he takes a positively scummy guy, a human cockroach that I would normally want nothing to do with, and actually makes him charismatic and quasi-tolerable. He pulls out all the stops playing this amoral, chauvinistic shit bag of a character, and his scuffle with Jonah Hill while they’re both bombed on quaaludes is absolutely hysterical.

Speaking of Hill, he too is terrific as the slimy, cousin marrying Donnie, who at first seems to be played entirely for laughs, but as the movie progresses, some semblance of humanity comes through. McConaughey gets a fantastic scene where he takes Belfort to lunch, I just wish he hadn’t disappeared from the film so soon. Kyle Chandler is solid in his smallish role as the FBI Agent who investigates Belfort over the course of several years, and Rob “Meat Head” Reiner gets some laughs as Belfort’s temperamental father, who is a little disgusted by his son’s lifestyle.

Looking at everything The Wolf of Wall Street has going for it, from the first rate performances, to the profane, razor sharp writing, to Rodrigo Prieto’s splendid cinematography, it should have been an absolute slam dunk. Sadly, for me, it overstayed its welcome. Again, I still liked it quite a bit, it just isn’t among my absolute favorites of the year. It’s had the pedigree to be a truly great film, if only Scorsese knew when to say when.

 

12 Years a Slave

Monday, January 20th, 2014

******

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (3 People gave this 5.00 out of 5)
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Lest we forget…

12 Years a Slave

The H-Bomb: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in 1840’s New York. Married with two children, and working as a successful violinist, Solomon seems to be leading the ideal life. All of that, however, is about to change, when he accompanies a couple of fellow musicians to Washington for a prospective job. As it turns out, these musicians are in fact con men, who drug him, abduct him, and sell him to slave traders. Stripped of his name, and unable to prove who he is, Solomon is put on a southbound boat, where a fellow slave warns him to keep his head low and his mouth shut, about who he is and the fact that he can read and write.

Upon his arrival in Louisiana, Solomon, now given the name Pratt, is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a southern gentleman who treats his slaves with more kindness than most (he’s a nice slaver‚Ķ how sweet). It would seem as though Solomon, given the circumstances, could have done far worse, but after a nasty mishap with one of Ford’s more abusive slave overseers (the ever weaselly Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Solomon to plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), and this is where Solomon’s true nightmare begins.

Edwin Epps has a reputation. He is what they call a “slave breaker.” A cruel, vicious, hard drinking son of a bitch who is hot tempered and quick to take a whip to the ass-side of anyone who he feels has crossed him. To Epps’ way of thinking, slaves aren’t people, they’re his “property,” and as he explains, he will do with his property whatever he pleases, be it raping the women, working the men until they drop, or beating any one of them within an inch of their life, just for the hell of it. And his wicked witch of a Mistress (Sarah Paulson) isn’t any better.

This is Solomon Northup’s world now. Far, far from his family and home, being forced to work for nothing, being endlessly taunted and humiliated, and worst of all, being another man’s property. All the time he thinks about escaping, but he’s seen what happens to runaway slaves. He’ll have to bide his time, wait for the right opportunity‚Ķ but will that opportunity ever come?

Adapted by screenwriter/novelist John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings) from the autobiographical book by Northup, 12 Years a Slave is a searing look at one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of American history. As directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), the film dares not look away from the ugliest aspects of its subject matter, even though we the audience may often feel compelled to do so, particularly during a gruelingly brutal scene in which a young female slave is whipped for what feels like an eternity.

Some critics have accused McQueen of “going too far” in depicting the violence, claiming that it’s so gratuitous it becomes manipulative and offensive. I say those critics are absolutely full of shit. Slavery was a fucking atrocity (trite, I know, but still), and any attempt to sanitize it (or “white wash” it) for the sake of making it more palatable for the moviegoing masses would be, in my humble estimation, far more offensive. The only honest way to tell this story is in the most raw, unflinching manner possible, and that is exactly what McQueen has done. By never flinching once, he delivers a film that is, again, very tough to stomach, but that is undeniably honest and deeply moving.

However, as commendable as McQueen’s direction is, the real driving force behind 12 Years a Slave is the fearless lead performance by Ejiofor. He’s an actor who has impressed me in the past, particularly in Dirty Pretty Things, but this time, he pulls out all the stops and delivers a turn that puts him in league with the finest actors working today. His portrayal of a man who struggles to hold on to his humanity while enduring a living hell is utterly captivating and, by the final scene, just heart breaking. Ejiofor carries the movie from beginning to end, and If there’s a performance out there that’s more deserving of a Best Actor statue, I haven’t seen it.

An actor who has far less screen time than Ejiofor, but whose performance is every bit as powerful, is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the young female slave who suffers an immeasurable amount of abuse at the hands of Epps and his wretched Mistress. The scene where she makes a dire proposition to Solomon in order to escape the plantation is simply devastating. She has been nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, and in a just world, she will win.

As the loathsome Epps, Fassbender is positively chilling, and reminds us why his star is on the rise. The aforementioned Cumberbatch, Dano, and Paulson, along with Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, and Alfre Woodard all put in stellar, if regrettably brief, supporting turns. The only member of the ensemble I didn’t care for was Brad Pitt, and it had nothing to do with his performance so much as his character. [Sort-of Spoiler] Basically, he turns up late in the movie as the great white savior. Now, I have no idea if he was a real character or not, but he essentially made the end of the film a bit pat and anti-climatic. Again, it could have very well played out the way that it’s portrayed here, but to me it seemed not entirely believable and just too damn convenient. [End of Spoiler]

All things considered, though, the film up to that point was so bloody terrific that this character/plot device didn’t do any real damage in my eyes. As I told a friend on Facebook the other day, I didn’t think I would see a better film than Gravity this year‚Ķ and I was wrong. As great as Gravity is as a visceral and immersive movie going experience (I still think Alfonso Cuaron deserves Best Director), 12 Years a Slave is far and away the most wrenchingly powerful film that I’ve seen in years. I often tend to scoff at “Oscar Bait” pictures, but when one is done this well, it really doesn’t matter. A great film is a great film, and 12 Years a Slave is one hell of a great film.

The Wolverine

Monday, January 13th, 2014

***½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (2 People gave this 4.50 out of 5)
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“You don’t want what I’ve got.”

The Wolverine

The H-Bomb: Several years after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan (Hugh Jackman), a mutant once known as Wolverine, has given up the super hero life in favor of living as a hermit in the woods, where he is haunted in his dreams by his late lady friend, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). One night, after scuffling with some scumbags in a local bar, Logan is approached by some bug-eyed Japanese chick, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has been sent by a wealthy old acquaintance of his, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), to bring him to Japan. Once upon time, way, way back, Logan saved Yashida’s life. Now, Yashida is dying of old age, and he wishes to see his immortal friend one last time.

After some persuading, Logan agrees to go, so long as it’s just for a day (famous last words). When he visits Yoshida by his death bed, he finds out that the old man didn’t simply wish to say goodbye, he wants something from Logan… something that Logan is not ready to give. Later that night, Yoshida passes away, and the next day, at his funeral, all hell breaks loose as some mysterious goons attempt to kidnap his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Tasked with acting as her guardian, Logan finds himself being hunted across Japan by Yakuza, Ninjas, a duplicitous American doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and God knows who else as he tries to figure out who wants them dead and why.

As if that isn’t enough, Logan notices that when he gets injured, he doesn’t magically heal up the way he’s supposed to. He seems curiously… mortal. In order to get to the bottom of what’s happening, Logan has no choice but to confront his inner demons, dust off his adamantium claws, and once again become the Wolverine. Let the hacking and slashing begin…

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really give a damn about X-Men. I saw the first film in theaters, and it more or less shot in one ear and out the other. When X2 came out on DVD, I rented it, pretty much the same thing happened, and I never bothered with any of the X-Men films after that. I’m not at all suggesting they’re bad movies (though I hear the third one is kind of shitty), they just never hooked me in. However, I have always been intrigued by the Wolverine character, and by Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of him. He brought such charisma and such a perfect air of belligerent badass that I’ve always found him utterly compelling in the role. I was even interested in checking out X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but the overwhelmingly negative word of mouth on that one kept me away.

Now, we get Jackman’s second stab at a standalone Wolverine film, the “forget the last one, this time we got it right” movie, The Wolverine. Directed by James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma), this latest spin-off of the X-Men franchise is about two thirds of a damn terrific movie. Eschewing the typical comic book campiness, The Wolverine is actually structured and plotted more like a conspiracy/chase film, one that favors intrigue and characterization over bombastic action set pieces. That’s not to say there isn’t any action, because there most certainly is, plenty of it, including a fantastic fight set on top of a speeding bullet train, it’s just that the story and the characters are the driving forces here.

This, naturally, means that Jackman would have to rely on more than his physical prowess, which is itself impressive, in order to carry the picture, and he does exactly that. This is a conflicted, tormented Wolverine who’s running from his past, while trying to cope with his new found mortality, and Jackman brings his A game. This is his sixth time playing the character, and you’d think he’d be getting tired of it by now, but alas, he continues to play Logan with uncanny conviction. He is given immeasurable support by Japanese actresses Okamoto and Fukushima, both making their feature film debuts. Fukushima, in particular, is impressive as an ass kicking psychic mutant who knows her way around a Samurai blade.

Less impressive is Janssen, reprising her role from the first three X-Men movies. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, the problem is that the movie overuses her. All we needed were one, maybe two dream sequences with her, to get across that Logan feels guilty over her death. But we get scene, after scene, after scene… she pops up several times through out the film to lay the guilt trip on him, and it got really redundant really quickly. But, that’s a rather minor criticism.

A major criticism would be the film’s entire third act. As stated, the first two thirds of The Wolverine play out like an awesome, gritty thriller, even if the opening asks us to believe that one can survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a well. Then the last third happens, and all the cool grittiness and brooding character development goes right out the window. Set entirely inside a James Bond villain lair, with CGI mutant morphing and a giant, robotic Samurai straight out of Sucker Punch, The Wolverine basically turns into a big, loud, dumb comic book movie, the kind of which it spent so much time trying not to be. Add on to that a tacked on post credits scene that’s meant to set up X-Men: Future of Ass’s Past or whatever the fuck it’s called, and we’re stuck with two thirds of a great movie that totally derails in the final act. Tragic.

But, up until the 100 minute mark, The Wolverine really is one hell of an entertaining flick, with a tour-de-force showing from Jackman and a surprisingly engaging story. I liked it so much it has made me interested in checking out the older X-Men movies (and even the first Wolverine film) to see if maybe I can get into them. If you’re an X-Men fan, it’s required viewing. If you’re not, then it might just make you into one.

 

Nebraska

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

****

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 4.00 out of 5)
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Old age can be a real drag.

Nebraska

The H-Bomb: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a cantankerous old boozer whose years of heavy drinking have made him halfway senile. One day, he receives a letter from a sweepstakes informing him that he has won a million dollars. While it’s obvious to his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), that this letter is a complete scam, Woody insists on making the 900 mile trek from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the sweepstakes outfit is located, to claim his prize. Even though Woody can no longer drive, he remains hell bent on making the trip, so David reluctantly agrees to go along with him.

After some mishaps involving an overnight stay in a hospital and a search for lost dentures, the father-son duo finally make it to Nebraska, where they decide to stop over in Hawthorne, the small town where Woody grew up, and spend a few days with his brother (Rance Howard) and some other relatives. David warns his dad not to say anything about the money, but old Woody just can’t keep his dang old mouth shut and tells an entire tavern full of local beer bellies all about it.

Before long, Woody becomes the talk of the town, as the news of his good fortune spreads like wild fire. He’s getting pats on the back everywhere he goes, and a local newspaper, The Hawthorne Republican, has even requested an interview with him. As much as David tries to explain that it’s all just a misunderstanding, that his father hasn’t really won a damn thing, the good folks of Hawthorne will hear nothing of it, and soon some old “friends” and family members come crawling out of the woodwork, looking to take a piece of Woody’s non-existent winnings…

After his escapades in California Wine Country (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendants), director Alexander Payne returns to his home turf with Nebraska, a new dramedy about family, growing old, and discovering what’s really important in life. Working from a screenplay by Bob Nelson, this is the first film of Payne’s that he has not written himself, however, it does have quite a bit in common with the filmmaker’s past work, in how it follows the story of utterly ordinary people as they live their utterly ordinary lives, and in how it finds poignancy and humor in the seemingly mundane. In this case, it’s the story of a father and son bonding over a road trip, and in typical Payne fashion, things shift, quite naturally, from heartfelt to hilarious, with his signature undercurrent of melancholy running throughout.

The digital black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, which gives the rural Midwest a look that is drab yet beautiful, goes a long way in setting the film’s sad-but-funny tone. It seems as though a lot of modern indies that are shot in black and white are only done so because the director thinks it makes the film look cool and artistic, but in the case of Nebraska, Payne expertly uses it in a way that is entirely¬†unpretentious and appropriate for the story. In the world of filmmaking, that’s the kind of thing that separates the boys from the men, and that is but one reason why Payne is one of the best directors working today.

In addition to impeccably creating the perfect mood, Payne also elicits some finely nuanced work from his talented cast, led by Dern, who is absolutely pitch perfect in a role that one would swear was tailor made for him. At the tender young age of 77, Dern gives what is easily the performance of his career as Woody, the somewhat out of it old timer who has to know that his million dollar prize is a scam, but who is so desperate for something to live for, aside from drinking, that he is willing to travel far and wide to obtain it. Having, in recent years, seen many family members grow old and a little aloof, I can attest that there is not a false note to Dern’s performance. The way he often seems lost in his own daydreams, and how he answers everything with a jarring “Huh?” or “What?”, despite not being hard of hearing, is authentic through and through. As a character we laugh at and pity in equal measure, Woody is the embodiment of the film’s bitter-sweet nature, and I’ll be damned if Dern’s performance isn’t award worthy.

Also making a strong impression is SNL’s Forte, as the much put upon son who accompanies his father for the whole journey. Having only seen him in the (very unfunny) feature length version of MacGruber, he is a revelation in what is essentially the straight man role, reacting to his unpredictable father’s antics sometimes with shock, other times with frustration, but ultimately with a sense of understanding and patience. He is the film’s anchor, and a sturdy one, at that. The other standout in the cast is Squibb, as Woody’s crass, loud mouthed, and exasperated wife. Most of the laugh-out-loud funny moments in the movie belong to her, in particular, the cemetery scene in which she pays a visit to some of Woody’s deceased relatives. I can’t give away what exactly is said, but it’s an absolute show stopper.

The rather languid pace and low key nature of Nebraska may be a put off to viewers who prefer their motion pictures with a little more pizazz, but for those who appreciate smaller, character driven stories, there is quite a lot to take away here. If I had to liken Nebraska to any of Alexander Payne’s previous films, I would say it’s most reminiscent of About Schmidt, both tonally and thematically, about men who are in the twilight of their lives and looking for some sense of purpose. It’s a meditation on old age and relationships that is, perhaps, a bit too dry at times, but is overall disarmingly charming, exceptionally acted, and, as a whole, quite rewarding.

 

Paradise

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

*½

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Far from it.

Paradise

The H-Bomb: When a terrible accident leaves most of her body covered in burn scars, mid-western Christian girl, Lamb (Julianne Hough), undergoes a major crisis of faith. She flips out and goes on a religion bashing tirade in her church, and then, much to the shock and horror of her parents (Holly Hunter, Nick Offerman), she hops a plane to the devil’s playground itself, Las Vegas, where she hopes to see and do all the things her religion told her she never could.

A genuine fish out of water, Lamb suffers from severe culture shock upon landing in Sin City, as everywhere she goes she encounters drinking, gambling, lewd dancing, hooker cards, girls in short skirts, and Muslim cab drivers(!). For a girl who was forbidden from ever wearing shorts, or going out on dates without a chaperone, it’s all just so much to take in. It doesn’t help that Lamb is very self-conscious about her disfigurement, and feels the need to cover up as much of her body as possible.

Eventually, Lamb’s wanderings lead her to a bar being tended by William (Russell Brand), who pours Lamb her first alcoholic drink‚Ķ which she promptly spits up. Recognizing that this little Lamb is way out of her depth, William and the bar’s lounge singer, Loray (Octavia Spencer), decide to take her on a guided tour of the “real” Vegas‚Ķ which basically consists of hitting up bars, bars, and more bars, with a trip to the pharmacy to pick up some much needed pain killers and a heart to heart talk with a hooker thrown in for good measure. What ensues is a painfully dull all-nighter that most definitely should have stayed in Vegas.

Paradise marks the directorial debut of Oscar winning scribe Diablo Cody, and serves as undeniable proof that not all screenwriters, even exceptionally talented ones, are meant to be directors. Things get off to a promising enough start, as Lamb rips her small, conservative church a new one with Cody’s scathingly witty dialogue, that is as sharp as ever. It has a solid theme, with an overly sheltered young woman seeing and experiencing the world for the first time, and discovering herself along the way. That all sounds well and good, doesn’t it?

So, where, o’ where, does Paradise go so, so wrong? Long and short of it, Cody’s direction. While the films made from her scripts that were helmed by Jason Reitman had a great deal of spark and spunk to spare, Paradise is just flat and lifeless. I would never have believed that a film set mostly in Las Vegas could be so visually dreary, with bland cinematography that would barely cut the muster for a Lifetime movie, but alas.

Cody’s lack of visual flair, however, is really a minor problem. It’s her non-existent sense of pacing that’s the real issue. There are so many scenes that just sit there, as if all the energy and urgency have been sucked right out of them. Events simply unfold in a very blas√© manner, so much so that even the moments that were meant to be emotional and affecting fail to strike any kind of chord. It’s Cody’s indifferent direction that gives the picture an overall lack of weight and a sense of plodding that makes the scant 87 minute running time feel twice as long.

While Cody proves to be a fairly inept director, she really could have helped herself immeasurably had she handed herself a better script. As stated, her trademark dialogue starts out entertaining enough in the beginning, but completely loses its bite somewhere along the way, and ultimately becomes just as banal as everything else in the movie. This is probably the first film Cody has written where I can’t recall a single witty or memorable quote from it. Not a one. Hell, even the lackluster Jennifer’s Body had some quotable lines.

The cast tries here, they really do, with Hough making a surprisingly appealing lead. With the wrong actress in the role, Lamb could have come off, in some instances, as a complete caricature, a cartoon version of a provincial small town girl, and in others, as a whiny, self-centered bitch, when she brays on and on about her misfortunes. But Hough, in spite of the script, and the character’s laughably obvious name, managed to make her human and empathetic.

I was also surprised by Brand, who I never liked, as a comedian or an actor, but here, as the roving-eyed barman who develops a genuine affection for Lamb, he’s sympathetic and even kind of‚Ķ charming‚Ķ kind of. I also liked Spencer as the straight talking Loray, who tries to impart some wisdom on the naive Lamb. There’s a moment in which she comments on the role of wise, black characters in movies that I found rather amusing. It was the cast alone that saved this dismal, flavorless film from the one star stamp of death.

Sadly, as hard as the actors try, there simply is no saving Paradise. A boring script, plus boring direction, equals a boring movie. There is just no way around it, this movie’s failure falls entirely at the feet of Diablo Cody, who must have been going through a particularly uninspired phase when she wrote this dreck, then decided to shoot it herself. I do hope this is merely a phase, that she hasn’t lost all inspiration, as she’s shown herself to be immensely talented in the past. I also hope that she hasn’t lost Jason Reitman’s phone number, because, as Paradise clearly demonstrates, directing is not where Ms. Cody’s talents lie.

 

Before Midnight

Monday, December 30th, 2013

****

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“To passing through…”

Before Midnight

The H-Bomb: In 1995, versatile indie filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly) brought us Before Sunrise, a charming romantic comedy-drama about 23-year-old American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) who meets young French woman, Celine (Julie Delpy), on a train to Vienna. They end up getting off the train together, and spend the night wandering the streets of Vienna, discussing their dreams, their philosophies, and practically everything else under the moon. A romance blossoms, but because Jesse’s going back to the States the next day, it can’t last. So, they make a deal to meet again in Vienna six months later.

That film ended on the uncertainty of whether or not Jesse and Celine would make the rendezvous. Nine years later, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy re-united for a sequel, Before Sunset, and we got the answer to that question… they didn’t. However, Jesse, at this point 32 and married with a son, did write a book about that night, and while on a signing tour in Paris, he meets up with Celine once again. They only have about 90 minutes before Jesse has to leave for the airport, so they mosey about Paris playing catch up with each other, and during their time together, they find their spark re-kindling, and their romance deepening. They end up back at Celine’s apartment, with Jesse no longer caring if he makes his flight or not.

Unabashedly romantic, but emotionally frank and realistic, with two fantastic performances set against a beautiful back drop, Before Sunset was a delightful surprise in that it was just exceptional on every level. I was rather astonished, in the best way possible, at how much I genuinely loved it, and it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of 2004. Now, jumping ahead another nine years, we catch up with Jesse and Celine again in Before Midnight. They’ve been together for most of the past decade, and while they’ve never married, they do have twin daughters. It’s the end of the summer, and they’ve spent the past six weeks vacationing at a friend’s guest house in the Greek countryside.

They’re (obviously) now in their early forties, and while they still excel at discussing life, love, and philosophy to no end, they are also dealing with many more insecurities now that they’ve reached middle-age. Jesse may still dress like a twenty-something bohemian hipster, but as of late, he’s been having trouble coming up with a workable idea for his next novel. He’s also a bit alarmed at how fast his son, who’s starting high school, is growing up. And since he only sees his son during summer and winter breaks, he worries that he’s missing out on his “most important” years.

Celine, meanwhile, is a bundle of neuroses all her own. She’s all too aware that she’s not getting any younger, and she fears that, professionally, she never will live up to her potential. It doesn’t help that Jesse is talking about moving to Chicago to be closer to his son, which would mean she would have to give up her career, altogether. All of these festering concerns, as well as the many other misgivings that Jesse and Celine have towards each other, come to a head on what was supposed to be their final romantic evening in Greece. As their bickering gradually escalates and turns into all out arguing, everything will boil down to one simple question, do they still love each other, or is it perhaps time for them to call it quits?

Before Midnight has left me feeling rather torn. On the one hand, Hawke and Delpy, who have once again co-scripted along with Linklater, are absolutely terrific in the roles that they created nearly two decades ago. They slide right back into these characters as if they never left. Their chemistry is undeniable, their relationship is utterly believable, and they make Jesse and Celine as endearing as ever. Spending time with these two and listening to them gab on and on about anything and everything is a pleasure that I’m happy to indulge in anytime. Then there are the picturesque Greek locales, which are beautifully photographed by cinematographer Christos Voudouris, that add to the experience immeasurably.

On the other hand, there’s something, slight but noticeable, missing this time. I got the feeling early on in the film that something was amiss, when Jesse and Celine are interacting with several other characters, most notably at a rather lengthy dinner table scene. It never ceased to be entertaining and interesting, but in the earlier films, it was all about Jesse and Celine being together, and their interactions with others were kept to a bare minimum. This time, roughly half the film is them hanging out with a group of friends, and to me it seemed weirdly intrusive. I’m here to spend time with Celine and Jesse, and see how their relationship has evolved, who the fuck are all these other people, and why won’t they go away? Maybe it’s just me, but I found the presence of these outsiders a wee bit irksome, after a while.

Then, in second half, Celine and Jesse are finally by themselves, and at last, Before Midnight started to feel more in step with the previous movies. They walk and talk through all sorts of pretty scenery like before, and then, when they get to their hotel, they get into that aforementioned spat, that turns into the full blown argument, that pretty much goes on for the rest of the film. When this happened, the charm, that made the first two films so special, started to evaporate, and before I knew it, I was no longer watching an idiosyncratic romance, I was watching a middle-age couple fight.

It certainly didn’t kill the film for me, not even close, and it felt utterly real and organic, but it did put a damper on things and made the film somewhat less enjoyable than the ones that came before, particularly the excellent second film. Still, Linklater managed to keep the argument engaging, and give it the feeling that the relationship was in jeopardy, without making it melodramatic, which is commendable. Also, seeing Celine and Jesse at this low point did make me root for them all the more, so I suppose this turn in the story worked better than I orginally thought. However, my
initial reaction to it was, “Man, what a bummer.”

My issues with the film notwithstanding, Before Midnight is still mostly a wonderful picture and a worthy continuation in the “saga” of Jesse and Celine. For those youthful morons reared on that Twilight garbage, I would love nothing more than to forcibly sit them down and make them watch all three chapters of the “Before Trilogy”, so they can see a cinematic love story that’s intelligent, funny, and insightful. Talky without being static or dull, romantic without being sentimental or sappy, these are truly special films that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have crafted, and Before Midnight is no exception.

 

Roulette

Friday, December 20th, 2013
It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (1 People gave this 5.00 out of 5)
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Suicide is such sweet sorrow.

Roulette

The H-Bomb:  Three strangers sit at a living room table, passing around a bottle of liquor.  They are members of a suicide support group who have decided to try an alternative form of therapy.  Wheelchair bound Dean (Mike Baldwin) was a perfectly content landscaper who was about to marry a beautiful young woman when a mysterious ailment robbed him of the use of his legs.  Richard (Will Haza) is an assholish office drone who’s just been passed over for a promotion at work, is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and has started drinking heavily as a result.  Sunny (Ali Lukowski) is the obedient daughter of a fanatical Jesus freak father, who goes very astray when she meets and falls in love with a young artist who introduces her to a world outside of her previously sheltered existence.

At first, these three disparate souls seem to have nothing in common, aside from their hitting rock bottom, and their shared affection for the bottle.  However, as this little group therapy session wears on, they discover that their lives are connected in more ways than they initially realized.  Eventually, when the bottle itself is no longer enough, they start passing around a revolver, and a very real game of Russian Roulette commences.

If there was ever a film to reaffirm my devout lack of faith in humanity, it would be this one.  Written and directed by Erik Kristopher Myers, Roulette is a compelling, if mercilessly downbeat, mosaic of misery that is easy to admire, albeit not so easy to enjoy.  Don’t get me wrong, that is in no way intended as a backhanded compliment.  Roulette is, across the board, an impressively well-crafted film, especially for one made on such a modest budget.  Just about every aspect of the picture, particularly the lead performances, are top notch and make it worth a look, just don’t expect it to brighten your day.

To an extent, Roulette reminded me of the work of Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, both in its non-linear structure as well as its sheer bleakness.¬† In particular, it brought to mind his 2003 film 21 Grams, another tale of how the lives of three strangers are linked together by tragedy.¬† That’s not to say, however, that Roulette is in any way deritive of that film, because it isn’t, at all.¬† It’s a highly original work that follows it’s own path to a very unpredictable and shocking climax.

For his debut feature, Myers does quite the commendable job.¬† Not only is his script complex and emotionally charged, but his direction is also solid.¬† He has a strong visual eye (it’s nice to see a young director go for actual compositions instead of simply hand holding every bloody shot) and does an absolutely incredible job of amping up the intensity all the way to the film’s finale.¬† There were a couple of minor script issues that I had, such as the scene between Dean and a psychiatrist that struck me as rather odd. What kind of fucked up shrink would talk to his patient like that?¬† It just didn’t seem right.¬† But such nitpicking aside, Myers does show himself to be a filmmaker with promise.¬† I read a disappointing little blurb in the IMDb trivia section that states that Myers has sworn off of movie making after working on this film.¬† I have no idea if that’s true, or just a bit of Internet bullshit, but if it is true, I implore him to reconsider, as he does have real potential.

As I stated earlier, the three lead performances in Roulette are terrific.¬† Each actor inhabits their role flawlessly and brings their characters to life, which consequently makes the film more difficult to watch, as their descent into hell becomes all the more real and affecting.¬† Even a character like Richard, who, as written, is a contemptible drunk and a douche bag, I was able to feel some iota of sympathy towards, because the actor, Haza, managed to bring out the humanity in him.¬† Baldwin also puts in a stellar showing as Dean, a rather… confused character who isn’t quite what he seems.

Special mention, I feel, needs to be made of Ali Lukowski, who absolutely kills it as Sunny, the good little Christian girl who goes very bad.¬† Now, at the insistence of my editor, I have to make a full disclosure here, I know Ali Lukowski.¬† I went to college with her back in the day, and it was her involvement with Roulette that drew me to it.¬† Now, you can think that I’m just sucking up and kissing ass with what I’m about to say, and that’s fine.¬† You’d be dead wrong, but that’s fine.¬† So, my disclaimer out of the way, Lukowski gives the performance of the movie.¬† When her Sunny starts to lose her shit, she is downright harrowing.¬† I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it, Ms. Lukowski is definitely an actress to keep an eye out for.

This, oddly, brings me to a negative I have.¬† While Lukowski is indeed fantastic, her character does something, I won’t say what, during the film’s climax, that is so fucking heinous it really affected me in an adverse way.¬† It didn’t ruin the film, and I do ultimately believe that it was dramatically honest, but it was an act that, overall, was so entirely unpleasant that, for me, it crossed a line and left behind a rather sour taste.¬† That major hang up on my part aside, I can’t recommend Roulette enough.¬† Again, it’s a challenging film that’s certainly not easy to watch, but is, at the end of the day, a compelling and rewarding one, and is very much worth taking a chance on.