Friday, September 30, 2011

Weekend Movie Guide

"50/50" - Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
A health-conscious 27 year old guy (JGL) has his world turned upside down when he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. I had the opportunity to see 50/50 about 6 weeks ago and it is, to date, one of the three best films I've seen this year. Outstanding acting, smart writing, and an overall tone that combines the right blend of dark humor, seriousness, and feelgoodery (yes, I invented that word and yes, I think it's awesome) to create a truly brilliant film. This makes the haphazard marketing campaign behind it quite infuriating to me. 50/50 has been advertised as a drama, a slapstick comedy, and a buddy comedy; the studio clearly has no idea what to make of this film. As a result, it's probably going to struggle at the box office and be overlooked when Award Season rolls around and that, dear readers, would be a travesty.

Value: $10 Should be a sleeper pick for a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actor nod for JGL if the studio would just get out of the way. 50/50 is R-rated for a reason but I think it has a wide ranging appeal if viewers will give it a chance.

"What's Your Number" - Anna Faris, Chris Evans
With the help of her neighbor (Evans), a young woman (Faris) attempts to track down the men of her past relationships to determine if one of them was "Mr. Right." The first film to capitalize on the R-rated, feminine power of Bridesmaids, the trailers for What's Your Number attempt to highlight the best of this film but I'm not buying it. Faris cannot carry a movie (at least a good movie) and the supporting cast is deceptive: lots of known faces pop up here and there but you can bet none of them will be given much screen time. Never trust a trailer that puts so much prominence on what amounts to a number of cameo appearances.

Value: $2 The girls-night-out crowd should enjoy this but that's where it should end. Early reviews have been pretty bad.

"Dream House" - Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts
After moving into a new house, a family man (Craig) learns that the home was the site of a brutal murder. I've watch this film's trailer a dozen times and I'm still not sure what to think. It has a solid pedigree and an interesting twist but then again, if it's that great of a twist, why let the cat out of the bag in the trailer? With some good writing, I think Dream House has the potential to be a solid thriller but I could also see it falling into the typical traps that seem to always come along with this type of film.

Value: $4 I'm just not confident enough to put out a recommendation but if nothing else, I find Dream House to be intriguing.

"Take Shelter" - Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham
Troubled by horrible visions of the future, a man (Shannon) makes moves to lock his family in a bomb shelter, though his reasoning may have less to do with an apocalypse and more to do with self-awareness.  Michael Shannon takes on some interesting roles, doesn't he? He's one of those guys who'll do a major studio release so he can afford to do an indie film or two. I'm interested in Take Shelter and the early buzz has been quite positive. Done right, this could be a very good film

Value: $4 I'm not headed to the theater to see this anytime soon but when it hits DVD shelves, there's a solid chance I'll check it out.

"Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil" - Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden
Two hillbilly best friends (Tudyk, Labine) have their vacation ruined when they are attacked by a group of college kids who assume they must be Deliverance-like deviants. A buddy comedy with chainsaws! Don't be fooled by how stupid this movie sounds: it is supposedly much smarter, similar to the wittiness of Zombieland. You can never go wrong with Alan Tudyk, too.

Value: $3 Tucker and Dale will look really good on my Netflix Instant Queue.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: "Moneyball"

NOTE: The core concept at the heart of Moneyball is a term that is used more than once in this review: “sabermetrics.” To avoid any confusion later, let it be stated up front that sabermetrics are, simply put, statistics that go beyond the standard statistics that you might see on the back of a baseball card. Sports nerds often call them “deep stats”, another term that may be used in this review, because they are much more complex and sometimes controversial than the traditional stats that have been used in baseball since the Civil War. While even the most apathetic baseball watcher knows the basic concept behind a batter’s average, sabermetrics (and the ideas behind Moneyball) measure things like OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) and various other stats that give a more complete view of what’s actually happening on a baseball diamond. Also, if this paragraph interested you in the least and you haven't read Moneyball, I recommend picking up a copy right now.

Confession: Once upon a time, I hated Brad Pitt. Hated him. I’d like to say there was some hardened reason behind my hatred but alas that was not the case. No, I hated Brad Pitt because every girl, ever, loved Brad Pitt and I felt it was my duty to hate the guy that every girl loved. (I also hated Leonardo DiCaprio if that makes you feel any better, Brad.) In my defense, I wasn’t alone in this hatred; the vast majority of guys in my middle school also hated Brad Pitt and we all gathered together, jocks and nerds alike, to wish ill will upon him while our would-be girlfriends (not really) all carried mini posters for Legends of the Fall in their binders. Somewhere along the line that feeling changed. I found myself begrudgingly admitting that Pitt “wasn’t awful” in various films and slowly coming to the realization (somewhere around Ocean’s Eleven) that this guy was legit. Again, it wasn’t just me. An entire generation of males woke up one day after having hated Brad Pitt for years and suddenly it was acceptable to admit the dude was a baller. These days, Pitt is one of my very favorite actors and someone who I trust implicitly to provide quality films and stellar performances. Moneyball is no exception.

In 2002, the Oakland Athletics rode an unprecedented winning streak (20 games in a row) to propel themselves into the Major League Baseball playoff picture and the national consciousness. A 20 game winning streak would be impressive enough but what made the A’s really special was that their roster was made up of a rag-tag group of has-been veterans and haven-yet-been youngsters. Their cumulative payroll was around $38 million dollars, the second lowest in all of baseball, and leagues away from that of the New York Yankees who spent over $120 million that year (a number that has only gone up, by the way). At the center of their unexpected success was Billy Beane (Pitt), the general manager who had embraced a system that other teams once scoffed at. Moneyball is the story of what it takes to win when the odds are stacked against you.

Authored by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Blind Side), the book Moneyball made a huge splash when it came out in 2004. Hardened baseball people hated this book in the exact same way I hated Pitt in middle school: they hated it because they didn’t understand it, because they didn’t want to admit that someone had something they didn’t. For me, that something was the bad-boy good looks and sheer charisma that Pitt had and I never would. For baseball people, that something was an advantage that Billy Beane had and they didn’t. The kicker is that while there wasn’t much I could have done about securing Pitt’s looks or his fame, baseball people had access to the tools used in Moneyball but shunned both the statistical evidence that sabermetrics provided and the proprietors of these newfangled ideas. It is important to understand this because these feelings are a big part of the dramatic tension which drives the film. Beane and his aides, particularly Peter Brand (in the film)/Paul DePodesta (in real life) who is played by Jonah Hill, were laughed at by their colleagues, questioned by the media, and cursed by the A’s fans. And that’s exactly why the Moneyball system worked: because no one else was doing it. If every other team bought into the principles of Moneyball, it wouldn’t matter how smart Beane and his team were, they wouldn’t be able to fill out a competent roster. But no one thought this would work. “You can’t win baseball games like this” was the general sentiment around the league and that’s an overriding theme within the film. Director Bennett Miller does an excellent job of bringing the criticism and stress, as well as the satisfaction that came afterward, from the time period into the tone of Moneyball and creates a compelling narrative through it.

Moneyball is a true human interest story wrapped up inside a sports movie. Baseball is only a conduit for the profiling of an interesting man with a radical idea. Beane is more than a little haunted by his past life in which he did not live up to his promise as a highly touted baseball prospect. At the same time, he is keenly aware of the pressure he is under to see his system through to success. Add in the stress of providing for a young daughter and you get the perfect recipe for someone who is willing to take chances. The most interesting thing about Beane (both in real life and as depicted in this film) is that he is not a genius who came up with the Moneyball system; these concepts come from others. But he gets an incredible amount of credit for embracing a philosophy that everyone else rejected. Pitt does a remarkable job of painting the appropriate portrait of the man, of blending the toll of stress with a healthy amount of bravado. It is a much more subtle performance than playing, say, a man who ages in reverse or a muscled-up figment of another man’s imagination, but it might be his best yet. He receives solid support from Hill (a much different role than we’re used to for him), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who isn’t give just a whole lot to do), and particularly Chris Pratt, who steals every scene he is in. But the cinematic vale of Moneyball rests on the shoulders of Pitt and he comes through with flair.

My complaints about Moneyball are few and pertain solely to the desire to see more of the behind-the-scenes strategy and the building of the Moneyball system. I am borderline obsessed with sabermetrics and their usage and I personally think that what Billy Beane did in Oakland (during his heyday) was nothing short of brilliant. I would have loved to see the development of the system laid out in greater detail but then again, that’s not interesting to 90 percent of the moviegoers on a Friday night. I also thought that the baseball action, while solid, was too drawn out at times. Too much time and melodrama is spent on a single, solitary baseball game that will stretch the A’s win streak to 20 games. It was an important game, sure, but as a viewer, it is much more difficult to get truly invested in the drama of a mid-season game than, say, the last game of the regular season which will decide if our heroes will make the playoffs or not (Major League). I’m all for historical accuracy but I felt it was an odd place to stop down for dramatic emphasis. Still, Moneyball is a good, quality film headlined by one especially strong performance that could very well be the highlight of an outstanding career.

Grade: A-

Sorry for hating on you Brad,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: "Drive"

NOTE: I left a LOT out concerning Drive. To be honest, I probably could have gone on and on about this film for 3,000 words and turned this into a critical essay rather than an "average moviegoer" review which is what I strive for. It's very near to a masterpiece and that's a word I save for only the most special of occasions.

Coming into 2011, I have to admit that Ryan Gosling wasn’t anywhere near the top of my list of actors who could get me to the theater just by being involved with a given film. Oh, he’s an outstanding actor, to be sure, but most of his films (and his performances therein) are purposefully off-putting and difficult to connect with. He has essentially shunned mainstream films, choosing instead to take on the weirdest roles that come his way. Even in his most commercially successful film, The Notebook, he plays a character that is difficult to engage. As such, I’ve treated him much the same way I treat Paul Giamatti: I know his movies are good and his work within them is stellar but they’re not for me. Basically, I’ve admired his ability from afar up to this point. 2011, though, is a turning point for me and I would imagine many other average moviegoers. Crazy, Stupid, Love was a completely different turn for Gosling and one that showed he had a much wider range than you might think (or at least much wider than he’d allowed us to see). Ides of March will debut in a few days and it is a near lock to receive some award attention, at which Gosling may well be the center. But Drive will be the film that I remember, the one that takes the display of his talent to an entirely new level, and the one that puts him on the list of actors whose movies I will see no matter what.

 A man of few words, Driver (Gosling) makes his living fixing cars at Shannon’s (Bryan Cranston) auto-shop and working as a stuntman for big Hollywood productions. On his downtime, however, Driver is a freelance wheel man, a get-away driver with an excellent reputation. He is guarded and has limited human interaction. Just as he begins to develop a relationship with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), returns from prison and brings with him a problem: he owes some bad dudes a lot of money. Against his better judgment, Driver agrees to drive Standard and help him pull a heist that will erase his debt. When the deal goes south, Driver finds that he’s gotten himself mixed up in a much bigger mess than he could have ever dreamed and sets out to insure the safety of Irene and exact a little revenge in the process.

Drive is very close to a perfect film, a seamless blend of summer blockbuster action and art-house drama. Honestly I have no idea how this got a wide release but I’m sure glad it did. (To me, the success of Drive should signify to Hollywood that there is an audience for lower budget, independent films if they would just give us an opportunity to see them. But I digress.) It is beautifully shot, incredibly well written, and completely secure in its identity. It is a truly intelligent action film like I’ve never seen before. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has made a number of films that were well received critically but unseen by audiences. That should all change now. What Refn has done behind the camera here is impeccable; every element, from casting to the choice of the hypnotic synthesizer beats of the background music, fits the story and more importantly, the main character. It is almost impossible to properly describe how well Drive flows and how everything that happens fits together. From one line to the next, one scene after another, everything works in perfect harmony to create a film that is truly outstanding. The narrative is slow and the film really only features a handful of traditional action sequences and yet it is thrilling and tense even when nothing much seems to be happening. The best action films are able to keep you enthralled when there are no explosions or gun fights taking place on screen. Drive does this so well that I was almost disappointed when the proverbial crap hit the fan and the film moved from a character piece into the action realm; it was that good on the narrative side of the equation. But then again, the quiet and balanced pace of the film outside of the action sequences make Driver’s hyper-violent confrontation more shocking and hard-hitting than they might have been otherwise.

My only complaint about Drive is the excessive “blood and guts” that come along with each “fight” scene. It isn’t that I’m offended by the violence or the gore (as it were); on the contrary, not only did I expect some violent confrontations, what happens to those around Driver dictates such actions. The problem is that the shocking, bloody nature of these scenes actually detracts from the overall realism of Drive. This is an incredibly realistic, gritty film but the horror movie-like blood that comes along with Driver’s physical destruction of an opponent is over-the-top and doesn’t gel properly. Refn’s style is excessively bloody (see: “Valhalla Rising”) but in this case, a muted approach would have served his film better.

The real power of Drive, though, is in its protagonist and Gosling’s portrayal. All of the remarkable work behind the camera would be for naught if the headlining star wasn’t able to carry the load. Driver is an exceptionally complex character masquerading as a simple man. He is extremely well-defined, a no nonsense kind of guy who wears an '80s style satin white jacket all the time and yet somehow makes that cool. He speaks in short sentences and says even less with his facial expressions and mannerisms. But his body language says it all; from cautious hope with Irene to clear disgust for those he works with right down to the rage he feels over being betrayed. What Gosling is able to do without speaking is immensely impressive. When he wants to be, Driver goes beyond intimidating and borders on becoming downright menacing. You do not want to mess with this cat and everyone else around him seems to know it (they just realize this too late). Yet even when he’s on the rampage he is calm and collected, as if his quiet nature feeds his violent side and vice versa. There is a scene in which Driver puts on his driver gloves and delivers a smack to a traitor who is withholding something. It is in this moment that Drive switches gears and instantly transitions from a romantic drama to violent action film and in this moment, I was genuinely afraid not just of Driver but of Gosling himself. If you’d have told me 12 years ago that the scrawny kid from Remember the Titans would be able to send a ripple of fear through my body, I would have laughed in your face (and then punched you, as I’m prone to doing). This is just a microcosm of the brilliant performance Gosling delivers and a sign of all the things to come in his career. This would be a good film if Paul Walker was the lead (I already regret typing that) but Gosling makes it GREAT.

Grade: A+

I retract what I just said about Paul Walker,

Monday, September 26, 2011

DVD Roundup - 9/27

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) - Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel
The discovery of an artifact on the moon leads to an arms race between the Autobots and the Decepticons with the fate of the human race hanging in the balance. There are two parts to Dark of the Moon: the first 90 minutes that attempts to be a serious drama-action and the final 90 minutes that plays out like a typical Michael Bay explosion fest. That first half is ATROCIOUS; one of the worst movies I've ever seen and I am not exaggerating. But the back half, when Bay gets into his comfort zone, is actually pretty solid as far as Michael Bay movies go. There is a ton of total foolishness to be sure but the action sequences (which is basically one long, drawn out scene that takes over an hour to conclude) is highly entertaining and unintentionally humorous.

In Home Viewing Recommendation: Movies like Dark of the Moon keep me up at night because I can't exactly recommend a film that is filled with bad acting, awful dialogue, and a plot that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. But at the same time, the point of this film is to entertain and I confess that back half entertained me. So...I don't know, you make the call.

The Ledge (2011) - Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard
A Fundamentalist Christian (Wilson) forces his wife's (Tyler) lover (Hunnam) up onto a high rise to choose between his life and the life of another. Or something like that. Honestly, never have I seen an IMDB page that had a more dramatic difference between the one line summary at the top of the page and the full summary further down. Wow. I'd also like to note that The Ledge cost $10 million to make and made a STAGGERING $5,176 in the US. So there's that.

IHVR: This could be an option on Netflix Instant but I definitely wouldn't go out of my way to pay for it.

How I Met Your Mother: Season 6 (2010) - Neil Patrick Harris, Josh Radnor, Jason Segel
I've got to be honest here: from week to week, season to season, the How I Met Your Mother model is wearing on me. I've watched this show from the beginning and I've loved it. It began to drag, however, in season five and season six was frustrating at times. But the thing about HIMYM is this: when it is on, it's almost unbeatable. The whole is only above average but five or six times a year it comes up with a spectacular episode and completely nails it (very similar to the last couple years of The Office). It's a fun show and much smarter than you might think.

IHVR: The whole HIMYM series is worth your time if you've never watched it.

New to Blu Pick of the Week
Ben-Hur (1959) - Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Sold into slavery by his friend, a Jewish prince (Heston) earns his freedom and seeks his revenge against the man who betrayed him. Fun fact about Ben-Hur: it won 11 of the 12 Oscars it was nominated for, losing only Best Adapted Screenplay, written by Karl Tunberg. My question is, how'd you like to be Tunberg? You wrote the script to a movie that freaking KILLED the competition that year and set everyone else up for a multitude of awards but you get left out in the cold. Harsh, man. Anyway, Ben-Hur is awesome and if you haven't seen it, you should.

Also New to Blu
Mimic (1997) - Mira Sorvino, Josh Brolin, Charles S. Dutton (Guillermo del Toro's first English-language film.)
Footloose (1984) - Kevin Bacon, Lori Singer, John Lithgow (I hate this movie so I'll not say another word about it.)
Heathers (1988) - Christian Slater, Winona Ryder (I've never seen Heathers but Christian Slater in his prime was pretty awesome.)

Also New
Nirvana: Live at the Paramount (Just watched this on vh1 Classic. Incredible.)
CSI: Season 11 (2010) - Laurence Fishburne, Marg Helgenberger, George Eads
CSI Miami: Season 9 (2010) - David Caruso, Emily Procter
CSI: New York: Season 5 (2010) - Gary Sinise, Carmine Giovinazzo, Hill Harper
Law and Order: SVU: Season 12 (2010) - Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni
The Middle: Season 2 (2010) - Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn
The Cleveland Show: Season 2 (2010) - Mike Henry, Sanaa Lathan

Movie News Today

Michael Fassbender is being pursued for the Robocop remake. That...sounds...awesome. Yes, please.

Karl Urban will return to the role of Vaako in the third Riddick film. Urban is underrated in my book as is the Riddick series. Glad to see him stick around.

Blake Lively will play the lead in the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Lively's alright as long as she's not asked to do too much, like an accent. Wait...

Fox will look to adapt Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel into a movie. I haven't read this particular book but you know if Asimov is involved, it's got to have something to do with robots either becoming our friends or trying to kill us.

This year keeps getting better for Jessica Chastain who has been cast opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi thriller Horizons. I seriously had never heard of Chastain before this year. Wow.

The Star Wars Blu Ray set is breaking all kinds of sales records so I'm pretty mad at all of you.

Make sure you head over to Flix Chatter for Ruth's reviews of the various films seen at the Twin Cities Film Festival.

Big Thoughts From a Small Mind takes a brief look at the career of Pete Postlethewaite, one of the great character actors of all time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Weekend Movie Guide

"Moneyball" - Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
A baseball executive (Pitt) with a set of unique ideas takes over the Oakland Athletics, a franchise with limited funds, and transforms them into a contender. Based on Michael Lewis' best selling book which is based on the actual events that took place in Oakland, Moneyball bounced in and out of production hell for years before Pitt finally got it off the ground. I've always been a bit skeptical about this film (***SPOILER ALERT***) because the story doesn't end well. The A's never made it to the World Series (let alone win one) and Billy Beane (Pitt's character) is somewhat on the outs in Oakland. It's hard to buy into a sports film that you know doesn't end in glory. On the other hand however, the trailer paints a picture of a compelling human interests story and the Aaron Sorkin-lite dialogue is a selling point for me and I almost always enjoy the work of Pitt.

Value: $10 This is going to be good and I'd say it's a near lock to wind up on top of the weekend box office returns. As an aside, please do not pay attention to the negative reviews that baseball people (like ESPN's Keith Law) will dole out concerning Moneyball. Hardcore baseball people didn't like this book (when it first came out), don't like the sabermetrics system that Billy Beane used to propel Oakland back to prominence, and in general, don't like anything that isn't traditional, straight-foward, fact-for-fact truth telling. So kindly ignore any and all reviews written by baseball people.

"Abduction" - Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins, Alfred Molina, Sigourney Weaver
After finding out that he was abducted as a child, a teenager (Lautner) is forced to go on the run in order to uncover the truth of his identity. Here's the sad thing about Abduction: when you watch the trailer, if you ignore all of the HORRENDOUS dialogue and pretend it centers on a real actor instead of Lautner, it seems like a movie that could be somewhat enjoyable. Basically, the concept sounds decent enough. But good gracious, that trailer is appalling. Abduction currently sits at "rotten" on Rotten Tomatoes with a staggering 0% approval rating (it's still early, of course, but it's pretty hard to pull a goose egg like that) and there's absolutely no way that it's going to do well outside of the Twilight crowd. Also, does anybody remember that John Singleton directed Boyz n the Hood, one of the great films of the early '90s? Better yet, does John Singleton remember that John Singleton directed Boyz n the Hood? What happened, John?

Value: $1 As I said, Twilight fangirls will certainly buy in here but I'm actively rooting for the failure of this film and I'm hoping America pays attention to the stink coming off of this thing.

"Killer Elite" - Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro
An ex-special forces agent (Statham) must take out an assassin (Owen) in order to save his mentor (De Niro). When a buddy of mine asked my opinion of Killer Elite, may response was: "Looks terrible but never underestimate the ability of Statham to make terrible films entertaining." I stand by that statement. I always write Statham off as a one trick pony and dismiss his films when the trailers go live but eventually I'll see the film on DVD and I won't hate my life (excluding In the Name of the King, of course). He's a niche actor to be sure but you could do a lot worse than becoming the king of a given niche (which he unquestionably is) and making $5-10 million for each film.

Value: $3 HBO was designed with Killer Elite in mind.

"Machine Gun Preacher" - Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon
Based on a true story, Machine Gun Preacher focuses on a former outlaw (Butler) who finds God and heads to Sudan to save a group of children who were forced into becoming soldiers. Color me cautiously intrigued. I have no faith in Butler per se but I believe the guy is capable of quality performances as long as someone picks his roles for him and keeps him away from total crapholes (read: Law Abiding Citizen). This movie has some potential.

Value: $4 The early reviews have been pretty "meh" but even the negative reviews have given Butler some real credit. I won't be heading to the theater but a DVD viewing is in my future.

"Dolphin Tale" - Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick, Jr.
A boy (Gamble) convinces a prosthetic expert (Freeman) to build a new tail for a wounded dolphin that washed up on shore near his family's aquarium. This is the third entry on this list that qualifies as "based on a true story." I think this is one of those films that will be really easy to make fun of but if the mockers (of which I am usually one) were being really honest, they'd admit that despite the knowledge that this will be cram-packed with fake emotion, it doesn't look too bad. Now proceed with the mocking!

Value: $5 Dolphin Tale will, of course, be a serious player for the family crowd but again, I'm betting it isn't half bad regardless. Could be worth a shot.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: "Contagion"

I feel like “disease” movies used to be plentiful enough to take up a genre all their own. From The Andromeda Strain to Outbreak, disease flicks ran rampant at one time, reflecting a worldwide fear that seems to have died out with the Swine Flu. As a kid I was somewhat concerned about the Ebola virus. Maybe “concerned” is the wrong word but I was definitely aware of the disease and vigilant in my quest to make sure I never contracted the disease. (Seriously, I knew way more about Ebola than any elementary school kid should ever know.) But I wonder now if pre-adolescents even know what Ebola is. Somewhere along the line disease movies turned into the zombie movie resurgence and Hollywood hasn’t looked back since. As a result, I honestly cannot tell you the last time I watched a movie concerning some sort of virus or outbreak that did not result in the victims becoming zombies or another undead creature. It may well be that Outbreak was the last one I saw (and by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Outbreak; totally acceptable action-thriller). Contagion, then, represents a dying genre that probably needs a bigger push than what this film is capable of giving.

On a business trip to China, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes sick. Upon her return home, what she assumed to be a simple cold begins to ravish her immune system resulting in her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), taking her to the hospital, where she quickly dies. Simultaneously around the globe, others fall ill and die while those who came in contact with them start showing symptoms. The Center for Disease Control takes note and begins investigating only to discover that the virus is brand new and boasts a remarkably high death rate. Before long a worldwide outbreak is underway and it becomes a race between the rapid spread of the virus and the scientists who are working to produce a vaccine.

Steven Soderbergh is, in my book, one of Hollywood’s very, very best directors. He has an outstanding track record and with the exception of a couple of misfires, he always delivers movies that must be considered good or better. He is not, however, predictable. He has taken on a wide range of films in his career, from big budget flicks to barely seen indie dramas. He basically does whatever project he wants to do and does it his way with very little regard to how it will be received by critics and audiences. For example, The Informant! is an odd film with some bizarre quirks that I personally enjoyed but most people (critics and moviegoers alike) didn’t know what do to with it. Did that bother Soderbergh? No, I don’t think it did; he made the film he wanted to make and at the end of the day, that’s all he really cares about. Contagion is quite similar in that way. It poses as a thriller, maybe even a horror film, but it plays out almost like a documentary. It is an INCREDIBLY well-made film with near perfect shot selections and cinematography. (These behind-the-camera techniques are a big part of what makes Soderbergh so great.) The narrative, though, is very slow paced and almost burdensomely methodical, focusing entirely on the virus itself and the search for a cure and leaving almost no room for character development. It isn’t boring but there’s not a whole lot happening, either. As such, from a cinematic perspective, Contagion is a great film but as an experience for the audience, it is only above average.

The lack of humanity is what really holds Contagion back. Despite an incredible cast that includes Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard, there’s not a single performance in this film that warrants attention. That’s because the actors are given almost nothing to do, resulting in the feeling that they’re all just going through the motions. This plays into the documentary feeling but it also leaves a real disconnect between the screen and the audience. I honestly can’t decide if this was Soderberg’s intention or if he just failed to find the mark. Throughout the film’s runtime I kept wanting to buy into the characters, to care about their plight, but I was never given a reason, either organic or manufactured, to do so nor scenes that would illicit any attachment. Characters struggle and die but I didn’t find myself grieving their loss. Near the very end, we are given two very powerful, human moments (one in which Damon absolutely nails it) but by this point I had written off this part of the story and the impact was much less than it should have been. There are numerous storylines that don’t provide much of a payoff, resulting in an ineffectual use of the ensemble method. In hindsight, it might have been a better idea to emphasize a few main characters rather than spread the attention across the global landscape.

Contagion gets it right in a number of places and it is easy to see Soderbergh’s hands at work. There are some spectacular elements within the film that are truly inspired. But a film is only as strong as its weakest link which in this case is an utter lack of connection to the viewer. It is good, not great, worthwhile, but not a must-see.

Grade: B

I’m going to go watch Outbreak now,

Movie News Today

Empire provides a viewer's guide to the career of Ryan Gosling which I'll be delving into in my review for Drive early next week.

Jason Bateman has two more films on the docket because, as I've said before, he prefers the shotgun method (scatter several movies across the landscape; one's bound to hit the target) of acting. I love Bateman but let's face it, you can't base your decision of whether or not you'll see a movie on his presence in said movie.

Jeremy Renner will star in King of Heists about a real-life crook who took a big score in the 1870s. Sounds good to me.

With Moneyball opening this weekend, Rope of Silicon gives us the top 10 baseball movies and Rotten Tomatoes takes it a step further with the top 20 baseball movies. Though, of course, both lists are flawed because neither include 61*, my favorite sports film of all time. Oh well.

Cinema Slants watches the new TV shows (so you don't have to) and tells you what's worth your time and what is not. I plan on posting a brief guide myself over the weekend but check out part one of the Fall Television Landscape series here in the meantime.

Dan the Man's Movie Reviews takes on Children of Men, a great film that no one saw when it came out but now more and more people have been peer pressured into seeing.

The trailer for Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar biopic debuted today and it looks...good, I guess. Clearly this is Oscar bait of the highest order but...I don't know, I'm more skeptical than others. We'll see.

In Home Viewings: "The Beaver"

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a chronically depressed, miserable man who has been lost in a dark cloud of despair for years. He has driven the toy company his father founded to the brink of bankruptcy and that's nothing compared to the damage he's done to his family. His youngest son (Riley Thomas Stewart) doesn't essentially doesn't have a father, his oldest son (Anton Yelchin) despises him, and his wife (Jodie Foster) has kicked him out of the house. As the voiceover tells us, Walter died inside long ago but his body didn't have the decency to follow suit. On a serious bender, Walter finds a beaver hand puppet in a dumpster and when he comes to after a failed suicide attempt, he begins to speak to himself through the beaver (with a British accent, no less). He develops his own form of therapy, speaking only through the beaver and begins to reintegrate himself into the lives of his family members and his company with great success. Before long, however, Walter can no longer find the line of reality between himself and the beaver and watches as all the progress he had made washes away.

The similarities between Walter and Gibson himself are obvious and significant. Add in some unfortunate voicemail rants and a touch of anti-Semitism and this could play as a Gibson documentary. These similarities are also where "The Beaver" makes its money. Walter's transition seems authentic (to a point) as if Gibson himself is undergoing the therapy along with his character. He exhibits the right character traits of man who has lost his way and is struggling to find a way back and the work he does with facial expressions, body language, etc. is rich. It's quite possible that, as a Gibson fan and someone who wants to see him get back on track, I could be exaggerating the overall quality of his performance but I think a great deal is asked of him in this roll and he delivers. I wouldn't go so far as to call this a superb performance but it is solid and compelling and an example of just how good Gibson can be when he gives himself a chance. 

The other elements within "The Beaver" represent a decisive step down from the work done by Gibson. Foster's character never really finds a foothold to become substantial and her work as director is satisfactory but unspectacular. Kyle Killen's script is uneven, too drawn out in some parts but rushed in others resulting in a film that doesn't develop quite the way I believe it was supposed to. And while I am generally down with a darker narrative, "The Beaver" is almost overwhelmed with it to the point of frustrating bleakness. Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence (the Valedictorian cheerleader) have some nice moments together but their relationship is poorly developed and is treated at times like a distraction from the storyline involving Walter. A lot could have been done with Yelchin's character and his relationship with Walter but it stagnates early on and just barely reaches for redemption in the end. All totaled, "The Beaver" is a good movie with one great performance that carries the film much further than it could have gone otherwise. It is a worthwhile viewing but not one that I'd look forward to seeing again. 

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

DVD Roundup - 9/20

Bridesmaids (2011) - Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Mya Rudolph
An unsuccessful single woman (Wiig) finds her life upturned when her best friend (Rudolph) gets engaged to a wealthy man and begins hanging out with a different crowd. Extreme shenanigans ensue. Bridesmaids is, in a word, hilarious. In a year that is ripe with R-rated comedies, this one is the funniest and the one that has the most staying power (stuck around in theaters for a very long time). It also brought the world around to the genius of Kristin Wiig who has somehow been virtually ignored over the last decade despite her incredible and versatile work.

In Home Viewing Recommendation: Make no mistake, Bridesmaids is well deserving of its R-rating so if that brand of humor is not for you, stay away. Otherwise, check it out if you somehow missed it in theaters.

Modern Family: Season 2 (2010) - Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Ed O'Neill
According to the Emmys, this is the funniest show on television and if there was no such thing as Parks and Recreation, that would be correct. (I'm a little bitter about the P&R snubs.) Still, Modern Family is the rare sitcom that manages to make itself appealing on almost every level: families and singles, young and old, traditional TV fans and those who prefer more wit, everyone watches this show. That's what made Friends work for a long time and what made The Office so special. It isn't quite to that level yet but it rarely misfires and while I think it's ridiculous that Julie Bowen won an Emmy for her work (she's the worst part in my book), the cast is top notch.

IHVR: I don't have the passion for Modern Family that I do Parks and Rec but seriously, this show is laugh-out-loud funny every single week.

Raising Hope: Season 1 (2010) - Lucas Neff, Martha Plimpton, Garrett Dillahunt
True story: at the beginning of the last pilot season, Raising Hope was the last show I watched from week 1. That includes ho-hum procedurals like Detroit 187 and Blue Bloods, neither of which made it into my rest-of-the-year rotation. But Hope hooked me from the first episode (GREAT pilot which is very rare) and it only got stronger throughout the year. Modern Family is a better show but if you pressed me and forced me to choose, I'd probably say Hope is more entertaining. Also, I dream of a world where Garrett Dillahunt has either an Emmy or an Oscar and Hope is the best chance of realizing that dream.

IHVR: If you enjoyed the previous work of Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl and Yes, Dear) or any of the non-laughed tracked sitcoms on TV these days, Raising Hope is definitely worth catching up on.

New to Blu Pick of the Week
The Others (2002) - Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston
During WWII, a woman (Kidman) who lives with her two sick children becomes convinced that her home is haunted. No, The Others isn't what I'd call a GREAT film but of all the Sixth Sense knock-offs that came along in the half decade after that film changed the world, this is my pick for the best. It is genuinely spooky and the twist is quite solid.

Also New to Blu
Dumbo (1941) - Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, James Baskett (The Disney classic that I kind of hate)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) - Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal (The Hepburn classic I've never seen)
Scary Movie 2 and 3 (2001, 2003) - Various Wayans Brothers (The Wayans "classics" that make me want to jab a screwdriver in my own eye)

Also New
Castle: Season 3 (2010) - Nathan Fillion, Susan Sullivan (I don't know why I don't watch this show but I don't. If it showed up on Netflix Instant, I'm convinced I'd be caught up in a week.)
The Mentalist: Season 3 (2010) - Simon Baker, Robin Tunney
Hawaii Five-0: Season 1 (2010) - Kyle O'Loughlin, Scott Caan
The Kennedys (2011) - Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Barry Pepper
Body of Proof: Season 1 (2011) - Dana Delaney, Jeri Ryan
Mike and Molly: Season 1 (2010) - Melissa McCarthy, Billy Gardell
Happy Endings: Season 1 (2011) - Elisha Cuthbert, Damon Wayans, Jr.
Law and Order Los Angeles: Complete Series (2010) - Alfred Molina, Skeet Ulrich

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: "Warrior"

I’m a sports guy. I watch a ton of sports, I talk about sports incessantly even when no one cares what I have to say, and I work in sports. As such, I find that most people assume that I love sports movies. The truth is, though, that because I know a great deal about sports, I’m generally far more critical of this genre than I am of others. Look, I am of relatively average intelligence and I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in many things (including cinema, oddly enough). But I am a leader in the following fields: French fries, making fun of others, and pointless sports knowledge. I’m not bragging; it’s just the facts. When I watch a sports-related film, I see all the mistakes and continually have to fight the urge to say, “That would never happen.” I imagine it’s the same for doctors watching a medical drama, crime scene investigators watching “C.S.I.”, or homeless clowns watching the work of John Travolta (see what I did there?). “Warrior”, however, is the exception to the rule, the rare sports film that combines realistic action and a compelling storyline and creates an outstanding experience for any moviegoer. It truly bums me out that no one is making a big deal about this film and no one is going to see it ($10 million total gross to date).

“Warrior” focuses on the men of the Conlon family. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a former marine returning home for the first time in 14 years. Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school teacher struggling to make ends meet. Their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) is a recovering alcoholic who drove them both away with his many forms of abuse. The one thing that binds them all together is fighting. Boxing, wrestling, MMA (mixed martial arts for the uninitiated) brawling, or whatever else, the Conlon men know how to fight. When a fight promoter puts together a winner-take-all five million dollar MMA tournament, both Tommy and Brendan enter the field and are set on a collision course with one another. But this battle is nothing compared to the real question at the core of “Warrior”: is there anything that can heal this broken family?

From a sports standpoint, you can’t get much better than “Warrior” even if you’re not a fan of UFC or MMA. (For the record, I am not a UFC guy. I’ve always enjoyed boxing but with UFC I always feel as if I’ve just paid $55 to watch a man die. I’m not prepared for that step in entertainment.) There are a few clichés to be sure and I’d bet that hardcore MMA fans could poke holes in the action but for the most part, director Gavin O’Connor maintains a terrific air of reality when his characters are inside the octagon. The punches, kicks, and strangle holds are graphic but not overly so, just enough to convey the physical beating an MMA fighter takes on a nightly basis. The film also goes to great lengths to portray the dramatic differences in the various fighting style of each competitor, a major part of the MMA world. Tommy is ruthless and wild; you can feel his inner rage with each and every strike. Brendan on the other hand is calm and cautious, almost reluctant, everything built around waiting for his opponent to make a mistake. I’m not entirely sure that these details will matter so much to the average viewer but I found this to be indicative of the attention paid to each facet of the film as a whole.

But the real value of “Warrior” isn’t in the sports action at all but rather in the complex relationships of the Conlon men. In truth, this is really a character study under the façade of a sports movie. All three of these characters are tremendously well-written and intricate and the actors who portray them are worthy of serious award consideration. Their interactions are often heartbreaking and honest but with enough of a loving undercurrent to allow the audience to remain hopeful for a resolution between the characters. Hardy’s Tommy is initially hard to connect with and difficult to embrace but the film leads you on a journey to understand and accept him and delivers an excellent payoff when it’s all said and done. Nolte gives us his first meaningful performance in over a decade, reminding me and every other member of the audience that, yes, when this guy is on, he is an OUTSTANDING actor. Every word that Paddy speaks is racked with grief, the weight of his actions evident in every action. It is Edgerton, though, who makes the film in my book. I’ve long been a fan of Edgerton so I’m far from unbiased but his performance is subtly brilliant, quiet and yet extremely powerful, his face always full of the emotions you would expect a struggling father to have. He epitomizes the underdog perfectly and carries that with him throughout his scenes both in and out of the octagon. Hardy and Nolte are more likely to receive the attention of the various awards committees but it is Edgerton who holds the film together.

The secret to creating a great sports movie is not to get the audience to root for the team or contestant on the field (or in the octagon, as it were). That part is easy and it comes naturally. No, the secret is to get the audience genuinely and actively involved with the off-field narrative, to make the audience root for the characters in their flawed, human forms instead of their superhuman on-field personas. This is where many sports films fail and where “Warrior” succeeds. It is a few steps shy of a perfect film considering the handful of clichés it cannot avoid and a few sub-character scenes that aren’t entirely necessary. But these are small cracks in a solid foundation that makes “Warrior” a film to remember.

Grade: A

Kindly go and see this movie please,

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Movie News Today

Denzel Washington is in talks to take the lead for a remake of The Secret in Their Eyes. Always happy to see Denzel in action but I wish the guy would stretch himself a little.

Source Code (or at least the technology within it) is being pitched as a TV series. Incredibly intriguing and pretty smart in my book. Also, if you haven't seen Source Code yet, check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Will Forte has joined the cast of Neighborhood Watch which, I have to say, sounds kind of awesome. Love me some Forte.

This weekend brought us the 63rd Emmy Awards and here are the results in case you missed it. I promised I wasn't going to rant on the Emmys and I won't. But let me at least (briefly) provide the three best and worst from the show (not including the Lonely Island medly which was A-MAZING):

1. Friday Night Lights Gets a Solid Send Off - A writing award for the series finale plus Best Actor in a Leading Role (Drama) for Kyle Chandler are really not enough considering how great the show was for 5 years, but it'll have to do. I've come late to the FNL party but man...what a great show. Also, "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose" is perhaps the greatest TV/Movie inspiration saying since "Get Busy Livin' or Get Busy Dyin'."

2. Character Actors Get Their Due - As far as award shows go, very few things make me happier than veteran, quality character actors finally getting some attention. On the night, Peter Dinklage won for his work on Game of Thrones (the only award the show got unfortunately), Margo Martindale picked up some hardware for her run on Justified (another show that deserves more attention), and Barry Pepper won for his performance in The Kennedys. All excellent actors, all worthy of the attention.

3. The In Memorium Segment - Always a touching part of any award show, the quartet rendition of "Hallelujah" was exquisite. Yes, it distracted from the focus of that segment and yes, that song has been sung and sung and sung but that doesn't mean it isn't still awesome and that was an outstanding version.

1. "Funny" Announcer Guy - I have no idea what FOX was thinking or who the guy was but the dude calling out the standard, "This is his third nomination and first win" information added in a ton of "jokes" that were absolutely painful. Stop it. That never, ever needs to happen again.

2. Safer Stand-Bys Take Too Much Credit - Look, I love Mad Men. It's an incredible show. But winning Best Drama four years in a row is boring. Friday Night Lights, Justified, and Game of Thrones deserved some of the attention Mad Men was given (not to mention the fact that Sons of Anarchy received not a single nomination). Also, as funny as Modern Family is (and it is great), I don't think it really deserved a clean sweep across the comedy board though it's toughest competitor should have been Parks and Recreation which was very poorly represented.

3. No Emmy for Steve Carell - Let me say first off, I love Big Bang Theory and Jim Parsons is a major part of that affection. But Michael Scott is one of the greatest characters of the decade and for Carell to finish his run on The Office without an Emmy is a travesty. Absolute crap.

Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob takes a look at one of my very favorite films, The Untouchables. Definitely check this one out.

Scarlet Sp1der and Flixchatter both give us their favorite movie images. Fun lists, both of you!

Weekend Box Office Returns
Gotta say, I did not expect this. What a weekend for The Lion King! Also, thanks to all of you who didn't go see "I Don't Know How She Does It" and for pushing "Bucky Larson" out of theaters altogether. I knew you could do it!

1. The Lion King 3D - $29.3 million
2. Contagion - $14.48M ($44.19 million total)
3. Drive - $11.02M
4. The Help - $6.44M ($147.36M)
5. Straw Dogs - $5M
6. I Don't Know How She Does It - $4.5M
7. The Debt - $2.95M ($26.54M)
8. Warrior - $2.77M ($9.91M)
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes - $2.62M ($171.62M)
10. Colombiana - $2.3M ($33.35M)

Friday, September 16, 2011

An Open Letter to George Lucas

Hey George,

It’s me, Brian. You remember me, right? The toddler who walked around the house quoting the first 15 minutes of “A New Hope” word for word and sound for sound? The kid who spent every penny of his allowance trying to put together the complete collection of “Star Wars” action figures? The teenager who skipped school to see the first screening “Phantom Menace” on opening day? The adult who has an entire bookcase filled with Chewbacca memorabilia despite the constant mocking of his wife, family, and friends? No? Well, probably if you saw my face you’d remember.

Anyway, George, whether you know it or not we’ve been pals for 28 years. Your hard work took me to amazing places that I could have never imagined and helped lay the foundation for the nerd I am today (and all the beatings that came along with that). You’re not exactly a father figure so much as a “cool uncle figure”, the guy who takes you to awesome movies and maybe sneaks you a beer or something. Everyone needs an uncle like that, right George? It is because of this relationship which we’ve cultivated over the years that I feel I must write to you today and express my concern. Just know that it comes from a place of love.

I’m concerned about you, George. This is a big week for you and I don’t think it’s going to go as well as you might have hoped. On Friday your “Star Wars” films will be available on Blu-Ray for the first time ever. The greatest trilogy in the history of film (plus the three prequels which, quite frankly, suck) will finally be available in a format compatible with the greatest home viewing technology to date. I’m a simple man, George. I wear t-shirts almost every day, I drive a Ford Explorer that has 100,000 miles on it, and I’d prefer a Whataburger over just about anything a fancy restaurant has to offer. I don’t spend extravagantly and I have few luxuries. But I love HD, George. I’ve completely embraced the HD phenomenon to the point that my friends know not to even suggest I watch a television show if our cable provider doesn’t offer an HD option. I am constantly upgrading my DVDs to Blu-Rays and not just the ones that will look appreciably better in HD than in standard; I just bought “The Blues Brothers” on Blu-Ray. “The Blues Brothers”, George! If any film didn’t need to be upgraded to HD, it’s an early ‘80s comedy with almost no value in the cinematography department. Suffice it to say, upon learning of the “Star Wars” Blu-Ray  release, my initial glee was indescribable. In my joy I skipped around the block, smoked a celebratory cigar, and had the logo of the Rebel Alliance tattooed across my back (one of these things is not true but I’ll never say which). It was a truly glorious day. I half expected Carrie Fisher to knock on my front door in order to present me with a medal of honor.

And then the bottom dropped out.

Within 24 hours of my initial high, disheartening reports concerning this box set began to surface. I refused to believe these erroneous rumors at first; surely you had learned from your mistakes, George! But alas, I realized I had to do the research. I almost wish I hadn’t, George. I almost wish I would have ordered my copy of the box set and blindly ridden the wave of “Star Wars” euphoria the likes of which I hadn’t felt since Jar Jar Binks attempted to drive me to suicide 12 years ago. Instead, I nervously flipped on my computer and ventured over to Amazon where I typed in “Star Wars Blu Ray”, said a quick prayer, hit “enter”, and scrolled down to the comments section to see for myself.

My thoughts are best summed up in the words of Darth Vader: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”

Not only will this box set NOT feature the original versions of the films that multiple generations of “Star Wars” fans have come to love, you’ve also indicated that you NEVER intend for those versions to see the Blu-Ray light of day. Instead, our beloved trilogy will be jam packed with the added scenes and remixed sequences that plagued the “special” editions of the films in the mid-‘90s. To be honest, excluding the infamous “Han Shot First” moment in “A New Hope” and the stupid finale at the end of “Return of the Jedi”, I’m not that bothered by these changes. They’re unnecessary, to be sure, but they don’t fill me with the homicidal rage that other fanboys experience. But you couldn’t just stop there, could you George? You had to take it a step further. Over the last few months, more and more details of this set have surfaced and despite Lucasfilms’ best attempts to gloss them over, the negative aspects of these features have inevitably come screaming forward. You’ve added more changes, changes that on the surface may seem small but that further alter the original vision of the film.

Currently adorns the wall of my office. Yes, I am 28.
More importantly, George, you’ve spit in the face of your fans; you know, the people that made you the multibillionaire that you are today. I love everything about the original version of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. EVERYTHING. I love “Star Wars” more than any other piece of pop culture EVER and I love it just the way it was in 1977, 1980, and 1983. Allow me to speak for the billions of “Star Wars” fans worldwide when I say we don’t want your changes! We don’t want Ewoks that blink. We don’t want Hayden Christensen added into the final scene of “Jedi” in place of whoever the old guy was that played Jedi Ghost Anakin in the original version. (In fact, we don’t want Hayden Christensen AT ALL. If you’re going to make changes, can’t you edit him out entirely and replace him with Chris Pine, Ben Foster, or literally ANY OTHER ACTOR in the world?) We don’t want Ben Kenobi screaming like a drunken hobo to scare off the Tusken Raiders. And while we’re at it, dadgumit George, we don’t want Greedo shooting first!!! Han Solo knew the crap was about to hit the fan and he blew that little green freak away with the calmness that a normal man might show when swatting a fly. That’s part of what makes him so awesome! You took that part of him away, George; you robbed an entire generation of “Star Wars” fans of that knowledge.

There’s been a lot of internet noise about your Blu-Ray set, George, and a number of people who have simply said, “Well, they’re his films so he can do with them as he wishes.” But that’s not entirely the case. Sure, you made these films, God bless you. You changed the world with your revolutionary special effects and your rejuvenation of the sci-fi genre as a whole. You put together a set of films that have accepted more love across the globe than any other film franchise and that’s really not an overstatement. As such, they are your films and you can mess them up if you want to. But this sentiment fails to take into account the fact that without us, the fans, without ME, you’d be living in a three bedroom townhome on the outskirts of Malibu producing mediocre films that receive mediocre reviews and wondering about what would have happened if people would have just embraced your vision. We did embrace your vision, George. We flocked to theaters in a way that had never been seen before. With just the returns on “A New Hope” we set you up for life and that’s not even taking into account the sequels and prequels, the numerous theatrical and home viewing re-releases, the parodies and the merchandising. You made the films but we made you.

The thing you have to realize is that this is a partnership, George. You make films and we go to see them. You create merchandise and we snatch it up like it’s coated in gold. You put together a freaking Disney World thrill ride and we stand in line for hours to ride it. Without you we have a “Star Wars” sized hole in our lives but without us, your work following “A New Hope” doesn’t exist. Simply put, if no one buys into your product it doesn’t matter!  And if you don’t believe me just ask Joss Whedon and the cast of “Firefly.”

I’ve stood beside you, George. I’ve handled the ups and the downs and I’ve done my best to deal with the changes that you seem hell bent on shoving into my life because at the end of the day, my life is better with “Star Wars” than without (Jar Jar Binks aside). I have owned no less than five versions of this franchise on VHS and DVD and I would like nothing more than to walk into Best Buy on Friday and pick up my pre-ordered copy of the Blu-Ray set. In all honesty you have jammed this set with INCREDIBLE bonus features and it will kill me to not delve into those extras with the voraciousness of a Wookiee attacking an opponent following a loss (I stretched it a bit too far there, didn’t I?). But I can’t do it, George; I can’t continue to support the glee you seem to take in destroying my childhood memories. I can’t trust you, George, and that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all. As someone who paved the way for understanding and drawing upon the power of the fans, your inability to comprehend our ownership of your films is STUNNING. All of this animosity could have been avoided simply by providing the original version of these films in addition to the altered version you claim to like better. Would that have been so hard, George? Wouldn’t that have been worth the extra cost to avoid all the hate, anger, and frustration? The effort you made to put these films together so long ago has been repaid a trillion times over and now it’s time you repaid us in kind. I want my cool uncle back, George; I want the guy who showed me a wide world of awesomeness, not the guy who shows me dorky YouTube videos and treats me like an eight year old. Make this right, George. Make it right.

With love and concern,

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Weekend Movie Guide

"Drive" - Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston
A crew of hardened thieves hires a Hollywood stuntman (Gosling) to be their getaway driver. But when the job goes bad, the man is forced to get his hands dirtier than he'd ever intended. This is what you might call a serious action film and one that's supposed to be fairly gritty. Gosling, always an excellent actor but rarely as accessible as other big name stars continues to run amok in 2011 and solidify himself as a full on movie star. The early reviews for "Drive" have been incredibly positive and it's possible this could see some award nominations.

Value: $10 I'm planning on checking this one out over the weekend and it's a near sure thing that my anticipation will be rewarded.

"I Don't Know How She Does It" - Sarah Jessica Parker, Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Christina Hendricks
A top level business woman (Parker) juggles the demands of her family life with those of her career. I'm going to resist the obvious "I don't know how..." jokes and instead just saw that, having seen the trailer approximately 100 billion times, I would probably rather eat glass than watch even five minutes of this movie. I would also wager that the percentage of this film's audience that are women over the age of 35 will be somewhere between 99 and 100. Please stop making movies, Sarah Jessica Parker. Please.

Value: $1 This will be a big seller to middle age "girl's night out" events and that's about it. Rotten Tomatoes is LAMBASTING this sucker. And rightly so.

"Straw Dogs" - James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard
When a young couple (Marsden and Bosworth) move back to the smalltown where the wife grew up, they find the locals to be less than welcoming. A remake of a Dustin Hoffman film from almost 40 years ago, "Straw Dogs" is a horror/thriller that promises to upstage its predecessor in the department of "uber-violence." I'm personally less than impressed by the cast and while I generally like vigilantism, I have to be honest: home invasion films FREAK ME OUT.

Value: $4 The reviews have been almost squarely down the middle, either mildly positive or moderately negative. So there's a solid chance that if you're into this type of film, "Straw Dogs" will provide a payoff.

"The Lion King 3D" - Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones (re-release)
After his father's (JEJ) death, a young lion named Simba (Broderick) is exiled from the pride until discovering that his uncle (Irons) betrayed him. He returns to reclaim his crown and lead his pride back to its former glory. I almost didn't sum this one up before I realized it's been 17 years since "The Lion King" debuted and there might be some poor, unfortunate soul out there who's never seen it. My second favorite Disney film of all time, "The Lion King" is a powerful achievement in film and I don't just mean animated films. A true classic.

Value: $7 Despite how great this film is, two things bring down it's "value": 1.) It's in 3D (beating) and 2.) It will be available on Blu-Ray in just two short weeks. So if you're a DVD/Blu-Ray collector like myself, you might not want to spend $15 to see the movie once when you can spend $25 in a few days and own it forever. Just some friendly advice.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Movie News Today

JJ Abrams has officially signed on to direct "Star Trek 2." Now maybe we can get rolling on that sucker!

Jason Bateman again reiterates his plans/hopes to start shooting the much anticipated "Arrested Development" movie. Look, I know this is never going to happen but as one of the four original viewers of the show who campaigned tirelessly to get people to watch when it was still on the air, I'm going to continue to hold onto the lie and report these little pieces of news as if it were a sure thing.

Gerald McRaney has joined the cast of Tarantino's "Django Unchained." Am I alone in thinking Major Dad plus Tarantino is pretty awesome?

A remake of "Point Break" is in the works. There are two "Point Break" camps: the camp that thinks it is the greatest action film of the early 90s and the camp that thinks it's a cheesy nightmare of a film featuring a disgustingly robotic performance by Keannu Reeves (you can guess which camp I'm in). Both camps can agree, however, that it absolutely DOES NOT need to be remade. If someone tries to remake "Top Gun" I will lose it. Fair warning, Hollywood.

In other news, I've been bashing on Keannu Reeves for probably 15 years and I just learned that he has two n's in his name (per IMDB.) Good to know.

Terrence over at ScarletSp1der takes a look at "The Italian Job", one of the funnest films of the last decade, and drops some knowledge. Check it out!

Mark at Fast Film Reviews delves into "Higher Ground" which I unfortunately missed this weekend and probably won't get a chance to see until DVD. It's getting good buzz, though, so check it out if you have the chance.

Finally, the trailer for Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo" debuted today and while it's slightly more obviously "feel good-y" than I'd hoped, both Crowe and Damon belong on my "I Will See Anything You're Involved With" list.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: "The Help"

DISCLAIMER: I do not know how historically accurate this film is nor do I care. There has been some controversy, on both racial and factual levels, regarding “The Help” and while I’m sure some of it is valid, much of the negative press seems at best nitpicky in my book. Regardless, I am here to report on this film and the story it tells and nothing more. If you’re looking for a historical commentary, I would suggest finding another review.

There was a time in my life when if you’d asked me what I wanted to do for a career and excluded all ridiculous things like professional basketball player and Will Smith’s best friend, there’s a decent chance I would have told you civil rights historian. This was a short period of time, mind you, because I soon learned that to be a historian you had to spend a LOT of time studying which was never my strong suit. Even if I managed to master the art of studying, between interviews for features on the History Channel and the extras they put on disc two of a special edition DVD that no one watches, I would have to do something else like teach History or manage a museum, neither of which held any interest for me. Still, I’ve long held an interest in civil rights and I can very rarely resist a film or book centered on this topic no matter how historically inaccurate it may be. I didn’t read “The Help” (because if I don’t stand up to Oprah’s immeasurable power then no one will) but my wife did and I kept the film adaptation on my radar as a result. My attention was rewarded with one of the better films of the year and one that will certainly garner plenty of attention when Award Season rolls around.

After her college graduation, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) returns home to Jackson, Mississippi with a new job and a new outlook on life. She soon finds, however, that she is much different from her group of childhood friends, particularly their leader, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas-Howard). Looking to make a name for herself as a journalist, Skeeter begins interviewing two lifelong maids, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer), in hopes of putting together a book written from the perspective of the help. In the very midst of the civil rights movement, Skeeter’s book (and those who lent their voices to its creation) becomes a hot button issue that has much more impact than even Skeeter could have imagined.

The narrative of “The Help” is engrossing and relevant. Very rarely does a film grab my attention on an emotional level as quickly as this one did. While I am a self-professed cry baby, I usually don’t have to fight the urge to weep within minutes of the opening credits like I did this time around. “The Help” is emotionally charged but in an organic way that doesn’t feel forced. Given that this is the first real film for writer/director Tate Taylor, I was a little concerned going in that he would overload the audience with fake emotionalism. That’s an easy trap to fall into but Taylor navigates around the typical “tug at your heartstrings” pitfalls with the panache of a much more experienced hand. The script is strong, providing natural moments for both laughs and tears. Taylor’s characters are extremely well defined; they know who they are and so does the audience and through that, their personal evolutions are much more meaningful. He also takes great pains to avoid the vilification of most of the white characters. What I mean by this is that it would have been very easy (because it’s been done a hundred million times before) to turn all of the white characters aside from Skeeter into vile, racist scumbags one step away from membership in the KKK. Instead, Taylor illustrates the ignorance and the cultural failings that many people would exhibit in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. Skeeter seems more open minded than her counterparts and that, I feel, leads the film away from becoming a prolonged celebration of the white woman who led the way and allows for more focus on the true stars of the show, Aibileen and Minnie.

The cast of “The Help” is exquisite, almost perfect across the board. Bryce Dallas-Howard makes Hilly sufficiently hateable and as the only character in the film that is truly a bad (or even evil) person, she’s asked to carry a lot of the load. It is somewhat of a one-note character, truth be told, but Dallas-Howard maximizes her screen time and shows just what a force she will one day be. Allison Janie and Sissy Spacek are both excellent in limited screen time with Spacek providing quality comedy and Janie embodying the change that Skeeter hopes to provoke. As a social outcast, Jessica Chastain is absolutely dynamic. She brings a presence to the screen that is eerily similar to that of a young Julia Roberts (incredibly high praise in my book). Stone isn’t overly impressive but then again, she isn’t much to work with. Every time she is called upon to carry a scene she does so beautifully but “The Help” really isn’t about Skeeter and as such, Stone isn’t asked to do much.

In the end, the power of “The Help” comes down to the performances of Davis and Spencer, both of whom are MAGNIFICENT. Aibileen and Minnie are wholly different but together they form a brilliant team. Aibileen exhibits quiet strength; she says little but when she does speak, it is always worthwhile; she misses nothing and the years of witnessing the changes in the children she’s raised have clearly worn on her. Minnie, meanwhile, is filled to the brim with sass; she is quick to speak and even quicker to lash out with hilarious if truly unfortunate methods; she is hard but not unsympathetic to those around her. Both of these actresses absolutely nail their parts and bring humanity to the struggle for equality that is often, quite frankly, lost in many civil rights films. Both seem born to play their parts and both deserve the accolades which will undoubtedly come their way.

“The Help” tells a sprawling tale, though at times at times it deviates a little too much from what makes it special and becomes a bit long winded. I imagine readers of the book will enjoy the tangents (such as a love interest for Skeeter) more than I did but still, the transition from second to third act is a little sluggish. That said I found “The Help” to be bold and compelling, a human drama that pulls the audience in and doesn’t let go until the final credits roll. It shines a light on an underexposed segment of the fight for civil rights and portrays its subjects not as larger than life heroes but instead real people with genuine courage.

Grade: A-

How is “hateable” not a word?

DVD Roundup - 9/13

Thor (2011) - Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman
A brash young Norse god named Thor (Hemsworth) is stripped of his power by his father (Hopkins) and banished to earth. When our world comes under attack, however, Thor realizes his true potential and learns the value of selflessness. The summer's first super hero film, "Thor" was a good start for the blockbuster season but isn't overwhelmingly great. Hemsworth is convincing and Hopkins reminds you of the power he once had but the villain (Tom Hiddleston) is unimpressive and Portman's character is 100% worthless. It's a fun film and a solid starting point for the potential franchise but don't expect "Iron Man" or "Batman Begins."

In Home Viewing Recommendation: Definitely worth seeing. Rent this one!

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (2011) - Conan O'Brien
A documentary crew followed deposed Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien on his cross country comedy tour. Let's be clear on this up front: Conan O'Brien is a comedic genius. It doesn't matter if you don't like him or you don't care for his brand of humor. It's not about that. Conan understands what he finds funny and what his target market finds funny and he hammers that home time and time again. And no one works harder than old Coco, either, which is exactly what this doc is supposed to be about. I cannot wait to rent this. Review to come soon, I'm sure.

IHVR: Sight unseen, I'm saying this is worth your time if you enjoy documentaries.

Sonic Youth-1991: The Year Punk Broke (2011)
Another documentary, this one following the band Sonic Youth and their influence on the grunge movement. This movie also has some footage of Nirvana just before their break into the mainstream. The 20th anniversary of Nirvana's "Nevermind" is right around the corner and as a HUGE fan of the band and the grunge movement in general, I'm extremely interested in seeing this.

IHVR: I'm in for sure and if you're a music fan that doesn't have much knowledge of this time period, I hope you'll check it out, too. The perfect Netflix Instant doc.

Meek's Cutoff (2011) - Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano
A group of settlers hires a hardened cowboy (Greenwood) to lead them across dangerous territory but soon come to realize that he doesn't know where he's going. I'm always interested by Westerns and this one picked up some solid reviews from major critics (including Christy Lemire, my go-to film expert) but it wasn't as well received by the casual filmgoer.

IHVR: I'm not running out to rent "Meek's" tomorrow but if it pops up on Netflix Instant, I'll add it to the queue.

Big Bang Theory: Season 4 (2010) - Johnny Galecki, Jim Parson, Kaley Cuoco
I was late to the "Big Bang Theory" bandwagon but I've come to really dig this standard sitcom about a group of nerdy scientists who live across the hall from a would-be actress. In fact, it's become my go-to "I really need to get some writing done and I've already watched Sportscenter so I'm going to watch something I've seen a hundred times but still enjoy" show on boring weeknights. It is surprisingly well-written and the characters grow on you with each season.

IHVR: Good times here and a lot of fun to catch up on. Check this one out.

New to Blu Pick of the Week
Star Wars - The Complete Saga (1977-2004) - Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Ewan McGregor
I'm going to make a bigger deal out of this later in the week. SPOILER ALERT: I'm more than a little angry at George Lucas right now concerning all the reported changes to the original trilogy. I am going to do my best to resist the urge to buy this as my form of personal protest (in addition to my lack of an extra $100). But as hypocritical as this may sound, at the end of the day it's still "Star Wars" FINALLY coming to Blu-Ray so...yeah, of course this is the pick of the week. I will nerd out for "Star Wars" anywhere, any time. Just trust me. It's pretty sad.

Also New to Blu
Halloween 2 (1981) - Jamie Lee Curtis
Citizen Kane (1941) - Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten (Confession: I have never seen "Citizen Kane." Sorry.)
O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) - George Clooney, John Turturro, John Goodman
Trainspotting (1996) - Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremmer, Robert Carlisle
The Frighteners (1996) - Michael J. Fox, Jake Busey
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) - Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris
Don't Say a Word (2001) - Michael Douglas, Brtitany Murphy, Sean Bean (SPOILER ALERT: Sean Bean dies. Shocking, I know.)

Also New
Supernatural: Season 6 (2010) - Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles
Glee: Season 2, Volume 2 (2010) - Lea Michele, Matthew Morrison, Jane Lynch (I gave up on "Glee" about two episodes into Season 2 so I cannot speak to the quality of this season though the fact that I gave up two eps in should speak for itself.)
Grey's Anatomy: Season 7 (2010) - Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey (The show that will replace "Desperate Housewives" when it ends this season as the leader for the "E.R. Memorial Award for the Show You're Shocked is Still on the Air Every Time You See a Commercial for It.")
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena (2010) - John Hannah, Manu Bennett
Rescue Me: Season 6 (2010) - Denis Leary
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 6 (2010) - Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney (After I finish "Mad Men" and get through "Breaking Bad", I'm starting on "Always Sunny." I hear only hilarious things.)
Blue Bloods: Season 1 (2010) - Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Michelle Moynahan
Private Practice: Season 4 (2010) - Kate Walsh
Camelot: Season 1 (2010) - Joseph Fiennes, Eva Green
Love Wedding Marriage (2011) - Mandy Moore, Michael Showers
Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
Outsourced: The Complete Series (2010) - Ben Rappaport, Diedrich Bader (AKA "The Show That NBC Inexplicably Thought Would Be Better Than a Full Season of "Parks and Recreation.")
The Tempest (2010) - Helen Mirren, Djimon Housou
Hesher (2011) - Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman