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Thursday
Jan152009

The Wrestler, 2008

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part One

It's a sad state of affairs when the sixth film in a boxing franchise is superior to an alleged tour de force original film about wrestling. But it's gotta be said: Rocky Balboa knocks the shit out of The Wrestler, the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke that has garnered a lot of Oscar buzz (and recently netted a Golden Globe for its star)...

The Wrestler starts out interestingly enough, walking the audience through the life of professional bruiser Randy "The Ram" Robinson. He's got a hearing aid and a bad case of plastic surgery, and spends two days a week competing in the equivalent of off-off-off-Broadway matches (the other five days are devoted to clerking in a local grocery store). These competitions range from standard bounce-off-the-ropes fights to low-rent cage matches, where the object is to apparently make running stabs at the opponent using several sharp and illegal weapons without blacking out (this constitutes not only a brutal scene, but the only one of true invention in The Wrestler: Aronofsky teases us by beginning with the end of the fight, where The Ram is being treated for several gaping wounds and then flashing back to show--in full Passion of the Christ mode--how he got them; the audience's sighs of relief turn to gasps of horror in one very slick turn). We also see The Ram encouraging young fighters and showing up to micro-conventions to sign autographs for a handful of eager fans. The near-documentary quality of the film's first third promises a gripping look at this failed character...

Unfortunately, Aronofsky went gold-statue fishin' with a tackle box full of Oscar bait, which means The Ram has to have a series of tearful encounters with people as damaged as himself; these generic props are stipper-with-a-heart-of-gold Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and Ram's daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). The Ram wants to go out with Cassidy, but she has a kid and is afraid of getting hurt and...you can fill in the rest with a 99.9% chance of accuracy. Stephanie, who hasn't seen her father in years, is a college student majoring in drama (this is my theory, based on the fact that she has about three minutes of screen time where she's not crying or screaming). These characters derail The Wrestler because they are not given anything to do beyond the demands of the film's trailer. If you are surprised by any of the developments in their storylines, I congratulate you on being a fan of Quantum of Solace. Tomei and Wood are wonderful performers, but there is almost a misogynistic bent to their roles: they are the ingrates, the whores who are unable to prop up our hero in his darkest hour--until it's too late. Spare me...

Back to The Ram. He is offered a re-match against the foe whom he faced in his last big fight, twenty years ago. After suffering a heart attack, he gives up on the match; then he decides to fight after all. He quits his job at the grocery store (in a scene that is supposed to be empowering, but which really makes him look like a dumb, bitter asshole), and, against doctor's orders, enters the ring. By the time the credits rolled, I really hoped that something awful would happen to Randy "The Ram" Robinson. It wasn't just that the movie had let me down, but Rourke's portrayal was so grating, so selfish, that I just couldn't stand to look at him anymore (it's the same reason I couldn't watch any film starring Catherine Keener for about eight years); I suppose this is a testament to Rourke's ability to bring any poorly written character study to life and make it believable, but I want to be able to cheer for the person I'm supposed to like, not hope they die penniless and alone...

Which brings me--at last--back to Rocky Balboa, the perfect sequel. One can easily (and happily) discount the second through fifth installments of the franchise and simply view Rocky and Rocky Balboa as two movies made thirty years apart. Sylvester Stallone imbued in Rocky a desperation to succeed that felt real, and set him in a rough Philly neighborhood that served to keep him down. In Balboa, he's back in that neighborhood after years of fights and personal loss; we know that he retired because of health reasons and opened a restaurant to keep busy and happy; he's estranged from his son, who struggles to make it in the business world and prove that he's more than a famous last name. The movie is filled with actual characters who have arcs and sub-plots of their own. When Rocky enters the ring against an opponent forty years his junior at the end of the film, we know that he's railing against depression and the notion that with age comes softness; in The Wrestler, The Ram comes off as a conceited dumb-ass who can't follow directions...

The key difference between the films--aside from the likability of the main characters--is that The Wrestler provides zero context for its hero's current condition. The Ram was once a major wrestler, with action figures, video games, endorsements, marquee matches. He had to have been a millionaire; twenty years on, he lives in a trailer. Did he gamble away his money? Snort it away? What happened to his family life, what caused the rift with Stephanie? On top of that, are the matches in which he competes legal? Is he part of some underground wrestling network that secretly converts school gyms into Fight Clubs on Saturdays? The movie is so full of questions that it needs an hour's worth of flashbacks just to help me give a shit. It's like watching a Donald Trump biopic in which he's living under the Brooklyn Bridge in the year 2029, hoping against hope to get into a small-business expo--except that we're only given an opening-credits montage showing him building a multi-billion dollar real estate empire; what happened to all the money?

I have no problem with movies like this being made, because they're easily forgettable and tend to remind me of better movies--and why I love them. My beef comes from the hype and praise that boost ticket sales and convince people that they should be moved by drivel that's not good enough for the Hallmark Channel. It's like being stuck in Aronofsky's far superior Requiem for a Dream in which everyone in the wold seems to be dangerously high...

Wednesday
Jan142009

My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009)

Coal Miner's Slaughter

This review was written for my friend Chad, the proprietor of Chateau Grrr. If you're a connoisseur of the creepy-cool, be sure to check out his site!

I caught an advanced screening of Lionsgate Films' My Bloody Valentine 3-D, a remake of the lesser-known 1980's slasher flick. With a tag-line like, “Nothing says ‘date movie’ like a 3-D ride to hell,” one might expect a bloody, campy axe-travaganza, and, for the first ten minutes, the picture delivers just that. Opening with a furious montage of newspaper clippings and voice-over, we’re plunged into a horrific incident in a small town, where a mine collapse has stranded several workers. One of the trapped men, Harry Warden, murders his co-workers with a pick-axe in order to conserve oxygen. Harry is rescued and taken to the local hospital, where he awakens from a coma and disembowels of the staff. The entire staff. Enter Sheriff Burke (Tom Atkins), the film’s World-Weary Cop. His opening line—too profane for print, but uproariously awesome—comes from a survey of the carnage, which is so over-the-top as to put Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 to shame. Burke pursues Warden, who has suited up in a spiffy new miner’s outfit—complete with creepy head gear—and made short work of a group of teenagers partying in the mine. It is here that the movie begins to fall apart, a bad sign when it has just crept past the ten minute mark.

At the party, we meet a trio of “teenagers” (okay, maybe they’re supposed to be college-age, but they’re clearly pushing thirty), Tom, Sarah, and Axle, who are caught in a really boring love triangle. Matters get sticky when Harry Warden starts butchering their friends and Tom is left behind. Fortunately, the sheriff and his deputy show up and blast Warden to hell.

Flash forward ten years. Sarah and Axle have married. Tom has returned to town to sell the mine, following his father’s death. He’s greeted with hostility from the locals, who stand to lose everything with the mine shutting down. And wouldn’t ya know it—with Tom’s arrival comes a slew of grisly Harry-Warden-style murders. The rest of the movie plays out as a poor-man’s Scream—with every character a suspect until that character’s death, but without any of the wit, inventive kills or suspense. And that’s the biggest letdown of MBV3D: it sacrifices inventiveness for long, uninspired conversations about lost love and revenge between people who the audience would probably rather see dead anyway. Those with a certain political bent may get a kick out of the murder of a guy who bears a striking resemblance to Joe the Plumber, but otherwise these are embarrassingly pedestrian kills. Not even the sight of a fully-naked blonde girl running around for four minutes elicits much excitement, and that takes a kind of talent and dedication that would’ve better served the screenplay.

Oh, if you’re interested in the true identify of the “Harry Warden” killer, think back to the climax of Friday the 13th: The New Beginning. Yeah, I know. Ouch...

Though this review could be seen as a pan, I’m actually recommending that horror fans check out My Bloody Valentine 3-D. The three-dimensional effects work is truly stunning, beyond the de rigueur pick-axe-to-the-face thrills. The depth-of-field in the (far-too-frequent) dialogue scenes is so rich that you’ll wish all movies could be shot in this way. Speaking of the pick-axe, I’ve officially seen every single way in which someone can be murdered with one of these things. The kills become repetitive after awhile, and anyone not watching the 3-D version will likely wonder what the fuss is all about. It’s thrilling to see a man’s jaw fly past your head, but at the end of the day, I prefer nuance in my butchery.

Note: After the screening, the audience was treated to a surprise Q&A with Tom Atkins (Sheriff Burke), who provided more entertainment than the film in which he stars. Aside from the typical "What have you been up to lately?" and "What was it like to work with John Carpenter?" questions (answers: not much, and fun--though Carpenter is apparently not an "actor's director"), Atkins livened up the session with stories about the worst dates he's ever had and what it was like to meet Vincent Price in a bakery at a young, impressionable age. It was refreshing to hear an actor gush over the low-brow fare that made him famous--his favorite being Night of the Creeps--rather than writing off his genre work as something he did in order to get "legitimate" jobs. Atkins concluded his presentation by telling the audience how dissatisfied he was with MBV's ending. That's right, he actually copped to not liking the finale of the movie he was there to promote; and he was absolutely right about where director Patrick Lussier should have wrapped. He not only suggested that three minutes be chopped off, but also walked us through how the final shot could have been more effectively staged.

Monday
Nov172008

Quantum of Solace (2008)

 

Quandary of Somesuch

Presented here, in no particular order, are twenty-two spoilerific thoughts on the awful Bond 22. If you can watch and enjoy this movie, and rationalize any or all of these points, I congratulate you on being an utterly indiscriminate filmgoer...

1. Eva Green's Vesper Lynd was not only a sexy Bond Girl, she was one of the brightest, and served as a romantic and comic foil for the brutish James Bond. Eva Kurylenko, as Camille, is a conventionally pretty, pouty-faced Girl-Out-For-Vengeance who might as well have been clipped off of a box of L'Oreal hair dye.

2. It is impossible--IMPOSSIBLE--for two people to open a single parachute twenty feet from the ground--while holding onto each other--and walk away without so much as a shattered limb (unless one of those "people" is actually a cut-out from a box of L'Oreal hair dye; even then the odds aren't favorable).

3. James Bond has grown a lot since Casino Royale--specifically, he has grown the ability to fly out of a plane, without a parachute, and attach to another falling body; he even goes so far as to detach from said body and regain his hold.

4. The post-credits fight/chase scene was intercut with a horse race for the sole purpose of fooling the audience into forgetting that they'd seen this exact sequence--minus the excitement and believability--in the post-credits fight/chase scene of Casino Royale.

5. Ditto the scene in which Mathis' body is found in Bond's trunk by a couple of corrupt cops--minus the horse race.

6. Ditto the scene where Bond and Mathis leave behind a beautiful, unsuspecting woman to go on an adventure.

7. The Bond franchise has elimiated the need for spin-off video games, as it has officially become one.

8. The Bond franchise has eliminated the need for a fourth Bourne film, as it has officially become one (in a direct-to-cable kind of way).

9. Jeffrey Wright's Felix Leiter character appears to have been demoted in the couple of weeks since his successful co-takedown of LeChiffre in Casino Royale. He now finds himself working a vague case with a jack-ass superior who wouldn't be out of place in a Naked Gun movie.

10. Jeffrey Wright's Felix Leiter not only has the cool to stand in the middle of a bar that is being raided by an armed tactical squad and take a manly sip of beer, he apparently has ear-drums of steel that prevent him from so much as twitching at the sound of breaking doors and gunfire.

11. The film's villain, Mr. Greene (who--chuckle, chuckle--runs an eco-friendly corporation) is after the world's "most precious resource"; if you didn't immediately surmise that he was talking about water instead of oil, please--PLEASE--stop going to the movies and read a goddamned book.

12. The Bond Lay--as opposed to the Bond Girl--is discovered dead in her bed, drenched from head-to-toe in oil; this is meant to A) symbolize the villains' twisted methods and B) remind the audience of a truly great Bond film, Goldfinger (in the hopes, I suspect, that these nostalgic good feelings help them coast through the next terrible forty-five minutes).

13. The Dead Bond Lay makes no sense, as the villains are after water, not oil.

14. When Bond drops the can of oil at the feet of Mr. Greene and bets that he'll drink it twenty minutes into being stranded in the desert, I was uncertain of whether or not he'd offered the man oil or a can of beer--apparently Bolivian oil comes in six-packs.

15. The can of oil makes no sense, as the villains are after water, not oil.

16. Mr. Greene is a slimy, bug-eyed little shrew for most of the run-time; during the burning-building climax, he becomes Jack Nicholson in The Shining. This is neither explained, nor commented on; neither is...

17. Bond's drawn-out "dilemma" of whether or not to shoot Camille in the head in order to spare her the terror of being burned alive. Neither is...

18. Director Marc Forster's refusal to recall--even in black-and-white flashback, even for a second--the tender moment between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale's shower scene at the moment when that scene is sloppily re-created in Quantum of Solace shows that he either A) hadn't seen Casino Royale or B) does not understand filmic motifs. Such a cue could not have saved the scene, but it may have provided some distraction from the intelligence-insulting notion that Bond would actually kill someone he liked, even out of mercy.

19. Forster also doesn't understand editing, pacing, or cinematography as they relate to creating suspenseful, easy-to-follow action sequences; which is why his being tapped to direct the film adaptation of World War Z is so depressing.

20. The Quantum of Solace title sequence contains a grating, uninspired song playing over scenes of Daniel Craig stalking a desert of female limbs that morph into sand; he never encounters anyone, but there's a lot of cop-show turning-and-pointing. This goes on for two minutes, and should be taken as a sign that it's okay to get up and leave the theatre.

21. Quantum of Solace is (allegedly) a movie about vengeance, featuring a character who swears he's not out for vengeance. This is usually played as sort of a knowing joke between the protagonist and the audience: we both know the protagonist is out for vengeance, even if other people in the movie don't. In this case, Bond keeps his word and sets in motion a sub-par action movie plot that favors cliches over emotion and sub-text--complete with the trite "give-me-your-gun-and-your-badge" nonsense that immediately precedes Bond's going "rogue". Quantum of Solace is a revenge movie without the revenge, and it makes for a frustrating two hours...

22. The highlight of which was getting to see the trailer for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek on the big screen.

23. {Okay, I lied, this is a twenty-three-point list. Consider it my homage to the deception on behalf of the filmmakers that they would make a quality follow-up to Casino Royale.} The trademark Bond-in-the-sights opening--which was brilliantly handled in the previous picture--is relegated to a pre-closing-credits add-on. It's a nit-pick, but it's also emblematic of everything wrong with this backwards-assed movie. The Bond franchise has regressed about sixteen years; it's once again Brosnan-bad, and I can only hope that this installment fails due to a lack of repeat business by smart people.

Sunday
Nov092008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

Touched in a Special Place

About fifteen minutes into Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno, I started to panic. "Oh, God," I thought, "this is so not funny. Please stop saying 'Fuck'. Please stop saying 'Fuck'. Please stop saying 'Fuck'"...

Sure, there are things to love about the beginning of the picture, but the dialogue are not among them--and one doesn't attend a Kevin Smith movie for the innovative camera angles. What I love about the way Smith establishes the world of Zack and Miri--the only film, other than Jersey girl (which doesn't really count as a film anyway), to take place outside of his "Jersey Trilogy" universe (which consists of six movies)--is the way in which he manages to depict poverty. I can't think of a recent mainstream picture whose protagonists claim to be down-and-out, and whose day-to-day struggles make me believe it; platonic roommates Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are broke broke: they can't afford heat or electricity or water, and they tool around Pittsburgh in a car that seems to be held together by hope and electrical tape. The movie is set in winter, and Smith sells the frost and the desperation masterfully...

What he didn't sell me on was the characters, not initially. Zack works at a coffee-chain satellite, under the distrustful watch of his S.I.B. (Stereotypical Indian Boss), played by Gerry Bednob--who also played the S.I.B. in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin with the same laughless charisma that comes from watching an old man say words like "Fuck" and "Cock" in a thick, foreign accent. More "hilarity" ensues when Zack's black co-worker, Delaney (Craig Robinson), is asked to work on "Black Friday". I invite you to imagine the genuine comic possibilities that could arise from such a scenario, and promptly forget about seeing them played out in this movie...

Let's rush into the good stuff, shall we? Zack and Miri attend their 10-year high school reunion. Miri has a mind to seduce her old boyfriend in the hopes that he'll rescue her from a life of sex-less poverty. Zack is simply trolling for poon. The first half of this sequence is truly uninspired, but when Justin ("I'm a Mac") Long appears on-screen as a gay porn star, Zack and Miri Make a Porno becomes an entirely different, worthwhile movie...

Through a series of madcap events, our heroes decide to shoot a low-budget skin-flick, starring themselves and a bizarre cast of local "talent", believing that they can sell enough copies to get the utilities working and perhaps earn some walking money. The misfits of their movie include Jason Mewes as an on-demand-erection guru, and porn stars Traci Lords and Katie Morgan. Smith regular Jeff Anderson shows up, too, as the cameraman whose sole purpose is to be the butt of one of the most genuinely surprising and hilarious moments I've ever seen on film (it shouldn't have been that surprising, given the fact that the gag was clearly set up in an earlier scene, but Smith deftly misdirected the audience with a powerful story point just before the moment of truth)...

The porn shoot is derailed temporarily due to an ill-timed demolition of the set (which is a shame, as I'd like to have seen a bit more of Star Whores), and the gang is forced to use the coffee shop as an alternate location. These scenes are pretty funny, with the requisite bad-acting and boom-mic antics, but they are not the heart of the picture. This is a romantic comedy, above all else, and it is in the blossoming relationship of Zack and Miri where Kevin Smith soars. Banks and Rogen are going to fall in love; they are going to doubt the advancement of their friendship; they are going to be awkward in the sex scene they must perform for the porno. None of this will come as a surprise to fans of the rom-com (or the haters of same). What is revelatory about this movie is the way Smith plays with the traps of the genre and gives the audience something comfortably familiar, but also refreshingly honest and unexpected. The aforementioned sex scene, for instance, in lesser hands would have been played for laughs; what we get instead is hot lovemaking; Smith directs his actors to perform as real people rather than movie characters...

The film is not perfect. It could've used another edit or two--especially in that troublesome opening quarter-hour--but like the best of Kevin Smith's pictures, it leaves behind the joy of having experienced a movie that is very, very funny and huge on heart. Like Clerks II, which ranks high on my list of the best sequels ever made--no, I'm not kidding--Zack and Miri Make a Porno aims for honesty and hits the mark. I know that Judd Apatow is the current King of Comedy--and almost the entire main cast hails from The Forty-Year-Old Virgin--but where his films tend to be heavy on improv and last thirty to forty minutes too long, Kevin Smith has mastered the tight comedy script and concise run-time. I'll take economy over jokey bombast any day.

NOTE: If you live in the United States, you're not likely to see the above poster in your multiplex. This is the "too-controversial-for-virginal-American-audiences" international poster. Yeah, that is fucking ridiculous. The U.S. one-sheet shows stick figure cartoons of the main characters, which, to me, harkens back to Colin Powell's U.N. address: it, too, featured drawings instead of photographs...

Friday
Oct312008

Saw V (2008)

Cornered

Unlike most mainstream critics, I'm reviewing Saw V from a fan's perspective. Yes, it's fun to eviscerate horror movies as cheap, poorly constructed genre fare, but the Saw franchise has been consistently interesting and smart. Part of the genius of this series is that each subsequent film answers questions (read: covers up the plot holes) of the previous pictures. For example, one of the biggest criticisms lobbed at the first film was the villain's ability to devise elaborate traps and kidnap people when part of his motivation stemmed from his being in the late stages of cancer; the solution: reveal, in Saw II, that he had an apprentice helping him the whole time...

The first three films created a tidy loop, a completed puzzle--until the last moments of Saw III when the series' famous twist ending came into play. The movie ended with the death of Jigsaw, the evil mastermind whose horrific games were meant to offer redemption to the corrupt (think Se7en's John Doe with an engineering degree); the catch was that his passing had set another game in motion, leading into the next installment...

Saw IV answered more questions about parts one through three, and set up additional mysteries for parts five and six, but the brilliance of the movie itself is that it contained only ten or fifteen minutes of actual sequel material. At the end of the movie, it becomes apparent that Saw IV is, in fact, a paraquel (a groovy little term I learned this week) of Saw III; this made for a mind-bending walk out of the theatre, but did very little to satisfy my desire to see the story move forward...

Wake up, everybody! It's time to discuss Saw V!

{Note: Much of this review has been spent covering old ground, I know, and that's partially because this "Critic(isms)" page is so new--most of the people I know have already heard these theories in person, and have answered back with glassy-eyed stares. It's also due to the fact that I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone who may want to see it in the theatre. And I do recommend the big-screen experience for this one. Just be prepared for a less-than-dazzling evening...}

Saw V is two-thirds of a pretty terrific picture. But, like Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, it is a frustrating endeavor for anyone paying close attention. With Jigsaw dead, the movie centers on Detective Hoffman, the one surviving cop from the previous movies, who was recently revealed as having been Jigsaw's second apprentice. He has devised a new game involving five seemingly random strangers who, in fact, share a Deep, Dark Secret; this device worked very well in Saw II, when it came out that the strangers were actually all criminals who had been busted by the cop who was on Jigsaw's trail; the cop's son had been thrown in with the low-lives and made to fend for himself while the audience waited to see when, exactly, his identity would be discovered. The randoms in Saw V, however, share a really lame connection, one that I would go so far as to call sloppy; but I'll withhold absolute judgment until Saw VI...

Hoffman is pursued by the FBI's Agent Strahm, a holdover from part three, who spends most of the picture snooping around Jigsaw's old crime scenes, muttering revelations to himself the way that NOBODY DOES (thanks, Patton Oswalt). The best parts of Saw V are the flashbacks with Hoffman and Jigsaw; Tobin Bell is sorely missed as the series' heavy, but at least he's able to contribute his smoky voice and bemused, calculating eyes to the proceedings. In fact, whenever Costas Mandylor's Hoffman is on-screen with Bell, I wished that the movie would shatter the "realism" of its universe and have Jigsaw come back from the dead as an evil-genius-zombie...

Ultimately, the movie falls apart in the last twenty minutes. Like The Prestige, I spent an inordinate amount of the run-time hoping, praying, that the filmmakers had not been so careless as to leave such obvious clues to the movie's "twist" ending; that I'd be rewarded by having these clues reverse back on themselves for a real surprise. Unfortunately, the only surprise at the end of Saw V is how poorly it compares to those of the previous pictures. My friend, Marshall, with whom I saw the movie, said that he didn't see the end coming because he'd "turned off his brain"; I died a bit inside, but realized, sadly, that he'd figured out the secret to fully enjoying the Saw V...