Archive for the Oscar winner Category

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-

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-

The 2010 Oscars…in Brief

Posted in Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2010 by ericstraus

This is not going to be a review of the Oscar program per se, as this is a film blog, not a TV blog…but one moment I do have to mention.  Did you catch Ryan Reynolds introducing the clip from “The Blind Side?”  He spoke as though he was channeling Rod Serling – I swore he was going to end his intro with “…in the Twilight Zone.”  It was quite odd.

But there were certain movie-related events that occurred last night which I feel are blog-worthy.  Most obvious was the historical win for Kathy Bigelow, becoming the first female to win Best Director.  “The Hurt Locker” took home several awards, including Best Picture, and deservedly so.  It was a great film.  So congrats to all those folks.

The biggest waste of time last night was the “tribute” to horror films.  I didn’t see the point to this at all, and several of the films they chose to show clips from were questionable, if not downright wrong.  They showed bits of old classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, Night of the Living Dead; they showed more recent slasher icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers; fan favorites like Jaws and Sixth Sense and Poltergeist; and then, Edward Scissorhands?  Young Frankenstein?  Silence of the Lambs?  Maybe you could say Lambs was a horror film, maybe.  But the other two?  Nope.  A quirky dark comedy and a slapstick comedy do not a horror film make.

The tribute was preceded by what was by far the funniest moment of the night – a video clip of hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin sharing a hotel room bed and videotaping the room, as a parody of Paranormal Activity.  There are probably video clips of it floating around for now, but I’m sure ABC is going to delete them all soon.  But it was funny enough to make my eyes water.

And finally, I was glad to see Avatar win some technical awards, and nothing else.  Happy viewing.