A Long Wait for Eight

Posted in Action, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Mystery, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by ericstraus

Oh, my poor neglected movie blog.  It’s so sad.  But I decided to give it some holiday cheer with this condensed review of the last films I’ve seen.  Enjoy.

Invictus – The true story of the South African national rugby team, and the events that transpired following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his becoming South Africa’s president.  Morgan Freeman is terrific as Mandela, and Matt Damon is equally good as the captain of the rugby team.  With South Africa hosting the 1995 rugby World Cup, Mandela believes that if the team can win, it will help unify the nation.  It’s a good story, and the performances are the highlights of the film.  The rugby match at the end is too drawn out, and extends the movie longer than necessary.  But overall it’s an inspiring story.                                                                                                                                                                           Final Grade for Invictus:  B


The Ghost Writer – A tale of suspense from director Roman Polanski, the film follows the adventures of an up and coming writer, played by Ewan McGregor, as he is tasked to ghost write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) with a shady background.  As McGregor uncovers more information about Brosnan’s past, the more dangerous things become.  It’s a well-made film – suspenseful, great acting, and a nice twist at the end.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Final Grade for The Ghost Writer:  B+


Date Night – Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a married couple with kids, who decide to infuse some excitement in their dull lives by stealing another couple’s dinner reservations.  Wacky hi-jinx ensue, as the mistaken identity premise runs its course via gangland shootouts, car chases, etc.  With two comic geniuses like Fey and Carell, this film should have been way funnier.  There are humorous moments throughout, but not enough to sustain 100 minutes of film.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Final Grade for Date Night:  C+


Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – Based on the seemingly ancient video game Prince of Persia, this digitally dominated film tells the tale of Prince Jake Gyllenhaal, who does nothing but leap, jump, tumble, climb and fight all over Arabia, attempting to save the world from villain Ben Kingsley.  The film stays true to the game in that the character really does jump everywhere.  I think Gyllenhaal spends 90% of his screen time in the air.  Overall it’s not a great movie – but the action is actually quite good, the story moves along quickly, and for a mindless popcorn film, it’s pretty good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                Final Grade for Prince of Persia: Sands of Time:  B-


The Last Station – This performance-driven drama tells the story of the last days of Leo Tolstoy, celebrated and revered Russian author.  Christopher Plummer is really good as Tolstoy, and the fabulous Helen Mirren is, of course, a real treat as his wife Sofya.  We get a glimpse at how truly revered Tolstoy was, and the story plays out with great intrigue.  Paul Giamatti is great as a Tolstoy devotee trying to manage his affairs, butting heads with Sofya over Tolstoy’s finances and his estate.  The acting is superb, the drama holds your interest, and if nothing else, the film provides a great education on Russian culture and politics shortly before the Communist Revolution.                                                                                                 Final Grade for The Last Station:  B+


Iron Man 2 – Usually sequels (especially superhero action sequels) fail to live up to the original.  Iron Man 2 is unique in that it is more entertaining and has a better story than its predecessor.  Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark, the eccentric billionaire who created the Iron Man suit to fight crime worldwide.  Since the first film, Iron Man has basically brought peace to the world, as criminals cannot compete with Iron Man’s technology, a technology that the U.S. government is constantly trying to get its hands on.  Mickey Rourke plays a Russian prisoner whose father was spurned by Stark’s father, and now seeks revenge by recreating the Iron Man technology that his father helped develop for Stark’s father.  Sam Rockwell is marvelous as the slimy, egomaniacal defense contractor that enlists Rourke to help him get the technology into the government’s hands.  The action is fantastic, the story well written, and Downey’s performance is great.  With all the bad superhero movies that Hollywood produces, it’s nice to see a good one.                                                                                                                                          Final Grade for Iron Man 2:  B+


Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage – Obviously if you do not like the music of Rush, you would have no interest in this film.  But even if you just have the slightest bit of interest, this documentary will blow you away.  Incredibly honest, revealing and even touching, the film explores the band’s beginning, middle and end with no lack of detail, interviewing a slew of current artists, showing footage of the band members’ home movies, and numerous concert performances.  I thought I knew just about everything about Rush, and this film showed me how much I was missing.  It was just humbling to hear musicians like Billy Corgan, Gene Simmons, and Les Claypool describe what they love about Rush, and realize that it’s all the same reasons I love them so much.  But this was not a “fluff” film at all – the negative aspects were not shunned, such as how Rush turned off a chunk of their fan base in the mid-80’s by experimenting with new synthesizer-driven sounds.  I can’t emphasize enough how complete and telling this film is.  Again, if you have even the slightest tingling of an interest in this band, you must see this film.                                                                                                                                                                                                   Final Grade for Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage:  A+


Robin Hood – This re-imagining of the classic Robin Hood, a prequel of sorts, stars Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride, an expert archer in King Richard’s army returning from the Crusades.  When King Richard is killed in France and Robert Loxley is murdered trying to return the crown to England, Longstride uncovers a plot by one of Prince John’s henchmen to allow England to be invaded by King Philip of France.  Longstride takes Loxleys’ identity and returns to Nottingham, meets Marion and helps defend England against conflict from within and from the outside.  The story is pretty good, as is the action.  Ridley Scott directed the film, and there are many similarities to the last Scott/Crowe film Gladiator.  But it’s entertaining enough, and the end creates the premise for how Robin Hood became an outlaw and lived in Sherwood Forest.  Cate Blanchett is very good as Marion, and it was nice to see Max von Sydow still alive as Marion’s father…who knew?                                                                                                                                                                                           Final Grade for Robin Hood:  B


The Line on Nine

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Horror, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2010 by ericstraus

I’ve been getting very lazy with my movie reviews lately, so here’s a quick synopsis of the latest DVDs to penetrate my corneas.

The Wolfman – Unlike most of the werewolf films of the past couple of decades, this one is about as close to a remake of the original Lon Cheney film from 1941.  Set in Victorian England, Joe Johnston’s film tells the story of Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro), an actor who returns to his homeland after learning that his brother has died under mysterious circumstances.  Reunited with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins), he begins to unravel the mystery of who – or what – has been attacking villagers under the full moon.  After Lawrence is bitten by the creature…well, you know the Wolfman story.  Visually the film is quite lovely – misty woods, cavernous mansions, etc.  But ultimately the film does nothing new for werewolf movies.  There is no new twist, nothing to really separate this one from the original, save for better special effects.  It’s not bad, but not particularly engaging either.

Final Grade for The Wolfman: C+ 

Legion – I’m a sucker for Biblical Armageddon stories, which is why I bothered watching this movie.  God has lost faith in humanity (gee I wonder why), and decides not to be so benevolent any more – he sends his army of angels to destroy mankind.  But one angel, Michael (Paul Bettany), defies God’s orders and comes to help the humans survive.  Michael’s explanation has something to do with wanting to have God regain his faith in man, but it’s not important.  Creepy ghoulish creatures begin destroying the world, and the final battle comes down to a lonely diner in the middle of the desert, where a handful of common folk must trust Michael to guide them to safety.  It’s a standard good vs. evil story, with clichés about God underestimating the humans’ courage and ability to do good…but the entertainment factor, which would be the only thing I’d hope to get out of a movie like this, was quite lacking.

Final Grade for Legion:  C

An Education – Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2010 Oscars, this coming-of-age story follows Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a very mature 16-year-old who’s only goal, according to her father (Alfred Molina), is to get into Oxford.  Jenny is exceptionally bright and talented, but everything changes when she meets David (Peter Saarsgard), a much older man who, along with two other friends, begins to show her a much larger world than she has experienced.  Eventually she becomes romantically involved with David, but as the affair goes on and she learns more about who David really is, the more she begins to question if she’s doing the right thing.  Superbly acted by the entire cast, the film is very good.  Mulligan is outstanding, and pulls our emotions from side to side as we sympathize with her yearning to be free from her parental bonds, but we fear for her as she dives headfirst into this new world.  Molina is also marvelous as the father who knows what he wants for his daughter, but also wants her to be happy.  The story is well written and succeeds on every level.

Final Grade for An Education: A- 

The Book of Eli – Why did I watch this?  Same reason I watched Legion.  Plus this one has Denzel Washington (who should have known better).  A virus has wiped out the greater population of the world, leaving a violent post-apocalyptic society in its wake.  Eli (Washington) has managed to survive and drifts from town to town, hunting for food and supplies.  We learn that he carries with him a very special book, thought to be the last of its kind left on Earth, a very powerful book that could unite people in a way that many of them had never known (much of the current population was born after the apocalypse).  Eventually a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who rules over one of the larger towns left on the planet, discovers Eli’s secret and sends his goons to recover it, as the book would undermine Carnegie’s hold on the people.  To be fair, Denzel is good in anything, even a movie as silly as this one, so just his presence makes the film watchable.  But the underlying religious message gets a little too pervasive toward the end; it’s hard to believe that a book which has caused so much war and violence could now be mankind’s savior.  But the story is good enough to keep you interested, provided you’re bored enough to want to watch it in the first place.

Final Grade for Book of Eli: C

Crazy Heart – Jeff Bridges won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Bad Blake, a one-time superstar country musician who has fallen on hard times of late.  He has been reduced to playing bowling alleys and dive bars, which has caused him to become an alcoholic, estranged from his ex-wives and his son.  After meeting young journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who wants to do a piece on him, his fog begins to lift.  Inspired by spending time with Jean and her young son, he tries to get back on track both career-wise and with his personal life.  But his self-destructive behavior won’t just fade away, and he tries to balance the good with the bad.  The film is enjoyable to watch as a musical bio-pic.  The music is actually pretty good (I say that as a non-country music fan), and Bridges’ performance is terrific, as is Gyllenhaal’s.  But some of the story is too clichéd – the alcoholism, the family problems, the struggle for resolution…we’ve seen it many times before.  But the characters do keep the viewer interested, and the film ends on a nice note.

Final Grade for Crazy Heart: B-

Runaways – Speaking of musical bio-pics, this one tells the true story of Joan Jett and the start of her rock career as the founder of the all-girl band The Runaways.  The film focuses largely on the relationship between Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning).  The film is actually based on Currie’s book Neon Angel, where she describes her rise to fame, her issues with sex and drugs, and her eventual burnout.  The story details how Jett and producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) started the band, with Fowley seeing a market for teenage girl rockers.  The band quickly becomes famous as people flock to see what Fowley calls “jailbait rock,” and the Runaways start opening for big 70’s acts like Cheap Trick and the Ramones, and they become huge stars in Japan with an almost Beatle-like fan craze.  But of course things fall apart – the media begins to focus on 15-year-old Cherie as a sex symbol, Jett and Cherie have sexual tension which spills into the creative process, and Cherie leaves the band.  The music is good, as far as punk rock goes.  The girls’ message is one of power (“Think like a man!” Fowley implores) and sex.  Stewart is very good as Jett – her passion for music really shines through.  Fanning has really come of age with this film.  Only 16 years old, she goes through the sex and drugs cycle with great poise and maturity.  It’s a good musical bio-pic, with the strongest moments stemming from the acting.  Shannon is really intense as Fowley, and is quite entertaining.

Final Grade for Runaways:  B

Alice in Wonderland – Tim Burton puts his twist on the Lewis Carroll classic, this time forming a sort of sequel to the original Alice story and Through the Looking Glass.  Alice has forgotten all about Wonderland, but she still dreams of it every night.  Just before being forced to marry an older gentleman, she sees the famous white rabbit, and follows him once again down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.  We see all the familiar characters again – the Cheshire Cat, the Blue Caterpillar, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Mad Hatter and of course the Red Queen.  They try and make Alice remember that she’d been there before, but sadly the Red Queen has taken over Wonderland.  The White Queen’s sword, the one that can defeat the monstrous Jabberwocky controlled by the Red Queen, has been stolen. Alice learns that she is the one who must restore order to Wonderland.  The characters are all well done and very funny.  Alan Rickman’s droll, sarcastic voice of the Caterpillar is terrific; Johnny Depp is truly mad as the Hatter, with his voice switching to a Scottish accent when he is angry; and Helen Bonham Carter is hysterical as the evil Red Queen.  The story is not great – it takes on a whole Lord of the Rings battle feel, which doesn’t work well.  The film succeeds with the special effects, the acting and the writing.  It’s a very funny film, particularly the scenes with the March Hare who cartoonishly hurls breakable objects everywhere, the Red Queen who likes to rest her feet on a live pig, and with Depp, who combines silliness with cleverness in a, well, clever way.  Burton’s creativity is obvious in the digital landscape of Wonderland, from the vivid colors of the forest to the majesty of the castles.

Final Grade for Alice in Wonderland: B-

Hot Tub Time Machine – This screwball comedy follows friends Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson) and Lou (Rob Corddry).  Their friendship has waned over the years, their lives are all somewhat pathetic, and after a suicide attempt by Lou, they decide to reconnect by going back to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they spent their glory days during the 80’s.  The resort has since become a dump, but the friends get drunk and end up in a hot tub which somehow transports them back to 1986 in their 1986 bodies.  They learn that in order to get back to the present, they must do everything exactly as they did 24 years ago or the future will be different.  So of course they change the future – but for the better?  There are actually a lot of laughs during the first half, but as the film goes on, the laughs get fewer and fewer as the movie tries to make some point about friendship and the choices we make in life.  It’s disappointing, as they could have just gone for a straight-forward gross-out comedy and not tried to infuse some sentimentality into it – the Hangover was so successful because it didn’t attempt any kind of message; it just delivered laugh after laugh.  The 80’s references are amusing but ultimately don’t really add much to the film.  Corddry is hilarious – a lot of his style that made him fun to watch years ago on the Daily Show comes through.  And Crispin Glover is also hysterical – good to see him working again.  There are still some laughs at the end, but by then the momentum has died.

Final Grade for Hot Tub Time Machine: C+

Kick-Ass – A movie for comic-book lovers and superhero movie aficionados, Kick-Ass tells the story of average kid Dave, who wonders why nobody has ever tried to become an actual superhero.  So he dons a costume, does some minor physical training and hits the streets.  He is quickly disillusioned when he tries to stop a car break-in and gets his butt kicked.  But soon he learns that there are two real superheroes in town – Big Daddy and Hit Girl.  Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) has trained his daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) to fight crime, as they plan to take revenge on the city’s crime boss Frank D’Amico.  Eventually Dave (who calls his superhero alter ego “Kick-Ass”) gains a reputation around town, and must team with Big Daddy and Hit Girl to topple D’Amico’s empire.  The film isn’t very good, filled with every comic book cliché you can imagine.  The saving grace is Moretz’s performance as Hit Girl.  She is an action star in the making, combining feminine cuteness with hard-ass brutality.  But overall the story is dull and doesn’t leave much to think about.

Final Grade for Kick-Ass: C-

“Brooklyn’s Finest” Lives Up to its Name

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags , , , , , , on August 5, 2010 by ericstraus

In order for a character-driven drama to succeed, not only do the characters have to be interesting, dynamic and well-acted, but the story has to be engaging as well.  “Brooklyn’s Finest,” directed by Antoine Fuqua, is one such example of a character-driven drama that does succeed.  I’m not sure why this film flew under the radar the way it did; it features A-list actors, a gritty storyline and a very relevant topic.  The acting is superb, the story engaging and entertaining…but it is a very dark film, and perhaps its lack of a “Hollywood” ending is what kept it out of the limelight.

The film follows three separate storylines which never really converge until the very end, but compliment each other very well.  Richard Gere stars as Eddie, a cynical cop who is a week from retirement; he is weary and unenthusiastic about the job, and the only comfort he finds is in the arms of a prostitute.  His final week on the job has him training new recruits, both of which end up in trying situations, giving Eddie even more reason to want out.  But on his last day, after he has turned in his gun and shield, he stumbles onto a missing persons case and tries to find redemption in rescuing a girl from torment.

Ethan Hawke stars as Sal, a vice cop who cares so passionately about his family that he is willing to do anything – anything – to provide for them, which basically means he steals money from drug dealers.  Already having three kids, his wife is pregnant with a fourth and their lowly home has a mold problem and is causing health issues.  Sal is determined to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to get money to buy a better home for his family.  But Sal’s passion begins to cloud his judgment, and the lengths to which he will go are tested.

The third plotline revolves around Tango, played by Don Cheadle.  Tango is a cop so deep undercover that he finds it hard to separate his fake like from his real.  He has created a reputation in the drug-dealing world – he is respected and trusted by the crime community.  But he has been undercover for so long that his wife is leaving him, and it is this that drives him to get out of the undercover business.  Complicating things is the release of Caz from prison.  Caz, played by Wesley Snipes, has become a friend to Tango, and becomes the target of the undercover operation.  Tango tries desperately to control things, but his duties as a cop and his undercover life clash to the very end.

Vincent D’Onofrio, Ellen Barkin, Will Patton and Lili Taylor round out the supporting cast, and along with the stars, the acting is fantastic.  Gere’s desperation and depression make us feel like we know his Eddie very well.  Hawke, who seems to be getting typecast lately as a “cop on the edge,” is superb as well.  We sympathize with his devotion to his family and we want him to succeed, despite the way he wants to go about it.  It’s nice to see Snipes back on the screen again – his role is reminiscent of one of his great characters Nino Brown from “New Jack City,” and he plays the cool, bad-ass gangster very well.  Don Cheadle is a terrific actor who does not disappoint in this role – his tug of war between his gangster persona and his cop identity is quite intense.

The gamut of police issues are addressed in the film, from corruption to on-the-job stress, to racial tensions and the use of violence.  While there is no deep message to be found about the police system in general, seeing these issues through the eyes of the characters is very potent and vivid.  The film is dark and gritty, and it’s hard to predict how it all ends.  But it’s definitely fun to watch.

Final Grade for Brooklyn’s Finest: B+

“Clash of the Titans” Titanically Sinks

Posted in Action with tags , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2010 by ericstraus

Hollywood has been awash with remakes over the last decade, confirming the overwhelming lack of originality and creativity in the industry.  Most of the remakes have been unnecessary, due either to the original not being good in the first place, or due to the original being a classic which a remake would ruin.  But occasionally a film comes along begging for a remake – such was the case with “Clash of the Titans.”  Originally released in 1981 and featuring big names like Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, and starring a young, hunky Harry Hamlin as Perseus, it was a fun Greek mythology story, with perhaps some of the worst special effects imaginable.  It’s not like 1981 was so long ago – the effects in “Star Wars,” released 4 years prior, had far more advanced effects than the original “Titans” did.  Full of stop-motion animation and claymation effects, the original film is laughable despite the good story.  So when I heard a remake was in the works, I was excited to see how the digital and CG effects could breathe new life into the film.  And on that front, the film succeeded.  But while the film stays close to the original storyline, the film feels rushed; it completely obliterates any of the “epic” quality that Greek myths inherently possess, throwing all its weight behind the action and effects, resulting in nothing more than a disappointing, boring action movie.

Sam Worthington stars in the remake as Perseus, born to a human woman but fathered by Zeus (Liam Neeson).  Mankind has begun to revolt against the gods, angry that they toil and suffer for them and get no reward.  Zeus’ brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes), god of the Underworld, convinces Zeus that the only way to get humans to start praying to Mount Olympus again is to drive fear and terror into their hearts, specifically by releasing the Kraken, and undersea gargantuan monster capable of destroying entire cities in minutes.  Perseus had watched Hades murder his family, and bent on revenge, he learns that the Stygian Witches know how to defeat the Kraken – cut the head off Medusa and turn the Kraken to stone with her gaze.  The film follows the journey of Perseus and soldiers from Argos, the Kraken’s next target, as he tries to accomplish this task.  Along the way he battles giant scorpions, befriends a tribe of ancient peoples, and eventually battles Medusa and the Kraken, flying on his winged horse Pegasus.

There is one acknowledgment of the original film, which was tactfully done.  The original featured a robotic owl creature of sorts that aided Perseus on his journey – it made no sense whatsoever in the original film.  In the remake, as Perseus and the soldiers are arming themselves for their travels, he picks up the owl and asks what it is.  “Nothing,” says one of the soldiers, and Perseus tosses it aside. 

This film could have been great.  If they had bothered to create any kind of character depth; if they had written dialogue that discussed the relationship between gods and man; if they had allowed Perseus’ journey to stretch out longer, to create a sense of suspense and exasperation; if they had taken any hints from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this film would have been great.  The battle scenes are well-done – but they are short, and we don’t care if anyone dies or not.  There’s no feeling of relief when Perseus finally saves Argos; no tension, no build-up, nothing.  Oh, here he comes…oh, the Kraken is dead. Zeus is happy.  The end.  Yes, Perseus has his revenge, but by the time it happens we just don’t care. 

So it seems the two films have switched places – the first was a great, epic tale with horrendous special effects, and the new film is a short, bland story with great special effects.  My recommendation – don’t bother seeing either film.

Final Grade for Clash of the Titans:  C-

Synoptic Six

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2010 by ericstraus

I know all 3 of you who regularly read these film reviews have been wondering if I’d given up the movie blog, being that it’s been a good 5 weeks or so since the last post.  But no, I return to you today with brief reviews of the six films I’ve seen since that last post; hopefully this will satiate your itching desire to know what I think of these recently released DVDs.  Enjoy.

The Messenger – A moving film with superb acting performances from Woody Harrelson (Oscar-nominated) and Ben Foster.  Two Army men are tasked with personally informing families that their loved ones have perished during combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The veteran Harrelson and the newcomer Foster have differing views about how their job should be carried out, complicated more when Foster begins to have feelings for one of the widows he meets.  There is a decent amount of humor which helps to keep the film from being a complete downer; the relationship between Harrelson and Foster and their performances make the film well worth a viewing.  Final Grade for The Messenger:  B+

From Paris with LoveA fast-paced, silly action film that is a sort of throwback to the cheeky Schwarzenegger films of the 80’s, fraught with one-liners and a pointless story.  John Travolta is actually quite entertaining as a rebellious CIA agent who does things his way, but always gets the job done.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers is pulled into Travolta’s world as a young CIA agent trying to stop a terrorist plot, and the two men battle bad guys all around the City of Light.  The action sequences are very fun to watch, if you’re into that sort of thing, and even some of Travolta’s one-liners are funny.  But it’s little more than a big-budget action film; if you’re looking for character depth, or depth of any kind for that matter, don’t.  But lots of explosions and car chases make for a fun popcorn movie, and to that end, the film delivers.  Final Grade for From Paris with Love:  C+

Edge of DarknessIt’s hard to judge a Mel Gibson film these days without considering what’s been going on in his personal life, but I’ll sure try.  This movie marks Gibson’s return to the screen following his anti-semitic diatribe and drunk driving offense, and overall it’s not bad.  Gibson is a homicide detective who watches his college-age daughter get gunned down right in front of him.  He assumes that he was the target, but as he investigates he learns that his daughter was a political activist and she indeed was intentionally murdered.  He throws the police rulebook away as he conducts his own interrogations, stopping at nothing to discover the truth.  The film has some gritty, intense sequences, but too much of the film is spent on Gibson’s personal reflection and humdrum investigation scenes.  By the time he finds his daughter’s killer, we’re not too bent on seeing him exact his revenge (which we all knew was coming) – there’s no real climax to the film.  Gibson is decent, but it’s obvious the drama in his personal life has taken a toll on his acting chops – he seems like he’s aged a lot more than he actually has, and it’s hard to know how much of the anger and desperation his character takes on is Gibson’s acting or Gibson’s actual personality these days.  Final Grade for Edge of Darkness:  C

The Blind SideI usually make it a point to not see Sandra Bullock movies; most of the time she does films I wouldn’t see anyway, but I usually just don’t like her as an actor.  But with her Oscar hype for this film, I decided to let go my dislike for her and watch the movie; she does deliver a fine performance – not sure if it was Oscar-worthy, but it didn’t annoy me, so that speaks volumes.  The film is a true story of Michael Oher, a young man who has sprinted through the foster system from family to family, never finding a home, and is eventually taken in by the Tuohy family.  The Tuohys are very well-off, and Oher is presented with opportunities he’s never had – Bullock takes him clothes shopping, gets him a tutor, and he begins to understand what it means to be a family.  Colleges begin to recruit him as his terrific athletic ability becomes well-known, and it’s up to Bullock and her family to keep him grounded and safe.  Bullock is very charming as the no-nonsense mothering figure, whose compassion and love for someone like Michael extends to her own family, and actually makes you feel good that she’s based on a real person, Leigh Anne Tuohy.  Quinton Aaron is also very good as Oher; he’s convincing in his obliviousness to what many of us take for granted – family dinners, our own bed, etc.  The film definitely has some overly sappy scenes; the tearjerker moments, if you will.  But overall it’s a good movie, and the ending is particularly moving as they show video and photos of the real Michael Oher and the real Tuohy family.  Final Grade for The Blind Side:  B-

Green ZoneMatt Damon is an action star, as the three “Bourne” films prove.  Those films are sharp, intruiging and fun to watch.  “Green Zone” is not any of those things – it’s a boring military action film, and despite Damon’s always-good acting, it should never have been made.  Paul Greengrass directs this film – he directed the last two Bourne films, so it seems that someone thought putting him and Damon together again would be a good idea.  But they apparently forgot to get a good script to go with it.  The film tells a ficticious account of Iraq in 2003, shortly after the U.S. “liberation,” with specific focus to Army units trying to find WMDs.  Damon’s squad continuously comes up empty after their intelligence reports directs them to where supposed WMDs are being kept.  Damon begins to unravel a conspiracy between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and of course his work puts a stop to it by the end.  Maybe it’s because the story is no longer timely, or maybe because it’s too close to the truth, but it’s not a compelling tale at all.  The action scenes are ok, but they don’t drive the plot and by the end we just don’t care.  Final Grade for Green Zone:  C-

Pirate Radio We saved the best for last.  This is a marvelous film about censorship and rock n’ roll in Britain in the late 60’s.  The British government has virtually banned pop music from its airwaves, but a group of DJs skirt the ban by broadcasting rock music 24 hours a day from a large commercial ship, anchored somewhere in the North Sea, much to the delight of English youth.  It’s basically an ensemble comedy, taking place almost entirely on the ship.  The writing ranges from funny to truly hysterical; the actors do a great job of delivering the hilarious lines.  Kenneth Branagh plays the government pencil-pusher whose mission is to stop the DJs from broadcasting.  His performance is wonderful, as he ranges from ecstatic when he thinks he’s come up with a fool-proof plan, to blisteringly angry when his plans are foiled.  The soundtrack is a delight as well, featuring a lot of well-known tracks from the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Who, but also touching on some less-known hits like Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.”  The end of the film gets a bit silly, and at times it’s unnecessarily preachy regarding the music=freedom vs. music=indecency argument that we’ve become all-too familiar with regarding the 60’s.  There are also a couple of sub-plots that are amusing, but don’t drive the story much.  For those reasons I had to include the “minus” in the final grade – but overall it’s a very funny movie that entertains from start to finish, highlighted by Branagh and the other actors’ comedic performances.  Final Grade for Pirate Radio:  A-

The Gory Glory of “Inglourious Basterds”

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by ericstraus

Quentin Tarantino is certainly known as a director who pushes the limits of filmmaking, with particular regard to violence.  “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” are gritty, intense movies that force us as viewers to toe the line between story-driven violence and gratuitous violence.  With his latest film “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino again pushes the boundaries of what kind of violence is acceptable to see, but this time there’s a twist.  The majority of the victims in the film are Nazis, and as loathsome and evil as many of them were, how much gory, bloody brutality are we allowed to watch them endure?  At what point can we stop laughing at Nazis getting their vicious comeuppance?  Combined with some great acting and a good story, Tarantino really sticks this question to us throughout a very good movie.

Set in German-occupied France toward the end of World War II, “Inglourious Basterds” tells the tale of two storylines that merge near the film’s end.  Storyline number one is about an elite group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  Raine makes it clear to his cadre what their purpose is: to not only hunt and kill Nazis, but to make an example of them, to drive fear into the German’s hearts.  Raine explains that he expects his soldiers to literally scalp at least 100 Nazis per person.  “The Basterds,” as they become known throughout France, quickly garner the reputation that Raine desires.  They always leave one survivor to report back to the higher-ups, and they carve a swastika in that survivor’s forehead.  Raine’s group quickly becomes the thorn in Hitler’s side.  When an opportunity comes along to eliminate every high-ranking Nazi in one location, The Basterds make a plan and prepare for battle.

The other storyline is a tale of revenge, centered around a clever Nazi colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).  Dubbed the “Jew Hunter,” he is charged with rounding up (or killing) Jewish families hiding in France.  After her family is murdered while hiding in a farmhouse, young Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes as Landa watches.  Years later, Shosanna has gained ownership of a movie theater in Paris.  When Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller takes an interest in her, she develops a plan for revenge.  Both her plan and Raine’s plan involve killing all the Nazis attending a German propaganda film premiere at Shosanna’s theater, and the film goes back and forth between storylines until the film’s climax.

There is a good amount of laughter for such dramatic subject matter – Raine and his group have some great lines, and even while we see them scalping Nazis, jokes are batted about.  But the real charm and humor of the film comes from Waltz’s performance, for which he won an Oscar.  He presents himself as a man of class and intelligence, and during his interrogations he so subtly condescends and lets us know he already knows the answers to the questions he is asking.  The opening scene of the film where Landa gradually breaks down the farmer’s guard and makes him admit he’s hiding the family beneath the floorboards, is simply amazing to watch.  The dialogue Tarantino wrote for him certainly helped his performance, but Waltz’s eyes could have won Oscars themselves – we see his thoughts and know his intent simply by looking into his eyes. 

The other actors do terrific jobs as well.  Laurent is wonderful, hiding her seething emotions while she uses Zoller’s infatuation to her advantage as she plans her revenge.  She does get to meet Landa in another scene, and we can see the intensity building up in her as she fights to keep her identity secret from Landa.  Pitt is a great actor, and while this was not his best role, he brings a good amount of levity.  The most amusing scene with Pitt’s Raine is near the end, as he has infiltrated the movie premiere by posing as an Italian stuntman.  When Landa, who is fluent in many languages, begins to speak with him in Italian, Raine answers using his Tennessee accent, creating an unheard of linguistic juxtaposition. 

It’s a fun story, seeing how the two plans mesh at the end of the film.  But as I mentioned, at what point do we stop laughing at seeing Nazi heads exploding?  Tarantino does what countless filmmakers have done in the past: make the Nazis seem inhuman, and therefore it’s acceptable to laugh when their limbs are hacked off, especially when it’s Jewish soldiers doing the killing.  But how much is too much?  Is there a limit?  I’ll admit I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Tarantino does either.  But I believe he was trying to find it with this film – and maybe it’s not just about Nazis, maybe he was asking a broader question about violence in general.  The German film premiering at Shosanna’s theater is the story of Zoller’s miraculous victory over an allied assault; he gunned down over 300 soldiers while trapped in a bell tower.  With every American death on screen, the Nazis cheer with delight, including Hitler himself.  It’s an ironic sentiment because that’s exactly what the audience of “Inglourious Basterds” is doing with each humor-infused Nazi death in the film.  So at what point do we, as human beings, stop cheering for death? 

Perhaps Tarantino’s vision was not as deep as I’m making it out to be.  Regardless, his film can be enjoyed for what it is – an original fictional storyline about WWII with great characters, entertaining dialogue and good action sequences…pretty glorious, actually.

Final Grade for Inglourious Basterds: A-

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” Lives Up to its Name

Posted in Action, Comedy, Family/Kids, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , on June 8, 2010 by ericstraus

There are always certain elements you can expect from director Wes Anderson’s films, such as “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tennenbaums” and “Life Aquatic”:  oddball characters that have emotional issues, writing that seems both realistic and unnatural, and an overall commentary on family dynamics.  All of these hold true in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion animation film based on Roald Dahl’s book.  But the one aspect of this film not usually found in Anderson’s work is slapstick comedy/physical humor; while the film is not dominated by this, it’s a welcome addition to compliment the entertaining story, great vocal acting, and a fun adaptation of the original novel.

In Dahl’s world, animal society mirrors human society – the animals have jobs, decorated homes, clothes, etc.  Most of them have embraced civility in place of their wild animal instincts.  George Clooney voices the title character, whose main vocation is stealing farm animals to feed his family.  His wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) accompanies him on these raids, but after nearly getting caught and announcing that she is pregnant, she convinces Mr. Fox that it’s time to settle down and focus on family, not midnight mischief.  We then fast-forward 12 years later, and find Mr. and Mrs. Fox have a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  The arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) creates some discord – Kristofferson is a quiet, Zen-like character who becomes the object of Ash’s envy as he endears himself to Mr. Fox.  Mr. Fox has a job writing a column for an animal magazine, but we can tell he is not comfortable with his button-down, 9 to 5 life.  He seems to have more trouble suppressing his natural urges than the other animals, and when an opportunity arises to create some adventure, he seizes it.  On the pretense of wanting a home to be proud of, he buys a new house underground beneath a large tree.  He does this against the advice of his attorney Badger (Bill Murray), who warns him that the tree is near the farms of three of the meanest farmers around – Boggis, Bunce and Bean.  Boggis owns a chicken farm, Bunce has ducks and geese, and Bean has turkeys, apples and alcoholic cider.  But being near these farms is precisely why Mr. Fox wants this property.

He soon enlists the help of an opossum named Kylie, a local handyman of sorts, to raid the three farms.  Mr. Fox uses his cunning to create elaborate plans, and Kristofferson also joins the mischief.  Soon the Fox’s cupboard is stocked with pilfered goods, arousing the suspicion of Mrs. Fox that her husband is back to his old ways.  The three farmers become aware of their nemesis and band together to capture him.

The film is fraught with humor, both physical and via dialogue.  The animation, though seemingly low-tech, is very entertaining and charming.  The writing toes the line between clever and dramatic, which is ultimately similar to the balancing act that Mr. Fox must face – he has to balance who he is instinctively with his familial responsibilities; he steals food to feed his family, but the ire he creates in the farmers ends up putting his family and other animals’ lives in danger.  Kristofferson becomes the son-I-never-had character for Mr. Fox, forcing Ash to do his best to win his father’s love by trying to steal back his tail, which Mr. Fox lost while being shot at by the farmers.  Like with other Anderson films, we see elements of our own family dynamics in the Fox family, harmonized with both absurdity and realism.  The action is quick, and the film flies by at a scant 87 minutes.  But it’s a fun ride.

Final Grade for The Fantastic Mr. Fox: B+