Thursday, June 30, 2011

Julie & Julia (2009)

Amy & Meryl

- After working hard as a writer only to be demoralized out of the profession, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) searches for passion and direction in her life. Because her incredibly depressing job answering calls from 9/11 victims in a bureaucratic madhouse is draining her of any will to live, Julie turns to one of her favorite pastimes: cooking.

As easy as 1-2-3, Julie launches blog about her personal challenge to cook all 524 recipes in the famous cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child (Meryl Streep) within 365 days. As Julie's blog takes off however, she runs into more than a few bumps along the way that strains her newfound project, marriage, and self-worth. Julie's personal quest and struggles mirrors some of Julia Child's own struggles to make her mark on the cooking industry throughout the 1950s.

What is especially interesting about Julie & Julia is how it is based on two books - Julie Powell's memoir "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously" and Julia Child's autobiography "My Life In France" - and how it tells the stories of both Julie Powell and Julia Child at the same time. Skillfully written and directed by Nora Ephron (Sleepless In Seattle (1993), You've Got Mail (1998)) the story of both Julie and Julia's lives is told with humor and affection as parallels between the lives of both women are clearly drawn.

With this very funny and touching story Julie & Julia is a very fun viewing experience overall but what is particularly great about the film are the fantastic performances from Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. While Stanley Tucci's supporting role as Julia's husband Paul also deserves mention, Streep and Adams really run the whole show with two very impressive performances. Amy Adams is full of emotion as Julie Powell and Meryl Streep does an excellent job of creating an authentic and relatable human being out of the larger-than-life Julia Childs character who could easily be turned into a caricature by a lesser actor. Julie & Julia is as much of a worthwhile film because of the great performances from Streep and Adams than it is because of the fine story it tells.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

An Impressive Modern Western

- Ever since Robert Ford was a young boy, the infamous outlaw Jesse James has been his hero. As a young man, Robert Ford is almost having an out-of-body experience as a member of the James Gang. Now Ford is not only able to meet his idol face to face but actually working side-by-side with him in similar illegal escapades that most only read about. But Bob Ford's feelings of ambition and fame start to replace his feelings of worship for Jesse James - and I do not have to tell you how things end up, the title already told you.

I will admit that I had some preconceived biases coming into this film right away: (1) I am a bit cautious when approaching films in which I already know how they end, they often do not leave much of an impression; and (2) I was not particularly keen on watching Casey Affleck in anything; he is after all.... an Affleck - and is not to be trusted with giving a good performance. However, everything turned out well in the end, as Casey Affleck did a real good job and I liked the film overall despite a few qualms.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has a fantastic cast and is wonderfully photographed; however, the film's story, while not bad and equipped with a large helping of gripping scenes, was not engrossing overall and I ended up impressed more with the film's characters and look rather than what moves the film along. It is nice to have those things go hand-in-hand, but in the case of The Assassination Of Jesse James my feelings are quite separated.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the film was the film's cast. Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James and gives what I believe to be his best performance to date. Jesse James is not exactly a character that has never seen on screen before, but Pitt gives the most powerful and most realistic performance of Mr. James yet - and this is coming from a big fan of Robert Duvall's portrayal of Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972). Pitt's Jesse James is very menacing and full of dimension - the man is quite simply plagued with insanity and you do not know what he will do next.

As I alluded to earlier, Casey Affleck also does job in his role as Bob Ford. A little slow in presentation but is quick on the draw, Bob Ford is bursting with personal ambition and seething with emotion. Affleck really brings these qualities out well, giving an overall impressive performance that silences all questions as to whether he is up for such a character in such a film.

As good as the two main performances in the film are (referring to Pitt and Affleck), I honestly think Sam Rockwell gives the best performance of the film as Charlie Ford, Bob's older brother. No less than two different things are battling each other in Charlie's brain throughout the film. Charlie has to deal with loyalty to Jesse, loyalty to his brother, fear for his brother and then fear for his own life. Rockwell does an amazing job bringing these internal qualities out for all to see on screen very subtly and he is particularly interesting to watch during the final act.

The other members of the film's cast also give great performances: Mary-Louise Parker as the very quiet Mrs. Zee James; Sam Shepard as Jesse's weathered brother Frank James; and Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt are also all excellent as mistrustful members of the James Gang. I dare you to find a bad performance in the entire film.

As far as the look of the film goes.... Well, it is quite brilliant. Deakins does it again! Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins - the master of light and color - performs a stellar job behind the camera photographing The Assassination Of Jesse James with his signature film texturing and slick camera movements. On top of "the master's" cinematography work, the art direction and costume design bring the late 1800s to your living room. Forget about pretending that Brad Pitt is walking around a Canadian stand-in for the western United States: The Assassination Of Jesse James takes you to the era, case closed.

With all the aspects I have to praise this film about, the story for The Assassination Of Jesse James is was ends up letting me down since, outside of a generous handful of gripping scenes, I did not find it particularly interesting. Perhaps it was knowing how the film was going to end before I even popped the DVD in, but a lot of the events leading up to the eventual assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford seemed a bit monotonous.

The story is actually quite captivating at the beginning of the film and then it becomes captivating again after Jesse James is assassinated by Robert Ford where we see Jesse James' legacy begin, Bob Ford getting what he wanted and still being unhappy, and Charlie Ford's reaction to it all. However, that leaves over two hours of a generally uninteresting story to contend with, squished between the two half-an-hour bookends of interesting story - and it is just not a very appetizing Oreo. The film does include a good number of captivating scenes, but they involve interactions between characters, which forms my general stance on the film that the characters and style are about the only interesting things to watch in the whole film, rather than the story and/or themes.

Still, the story hardly makes the film unbearable to watch; and, while the story fails to move the film along, the interesting characters pick up the mess. In the end, the memorable performances from the fantastic Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck-lead cast and Roger Deakins' fine cinematography work make The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford more than watchable and recommendable – they make it a great modern western.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Waitress (2007)

This Movie Is Dumb Pie:

3/4 cups of terrible story, unbearable
2 cups of terrible dialogue, cheesy
2 cups of terrible dialogue, lame
1/4 cups of terrible acting, pathetic
Add a sprinkle of "I can't wait for this movie to be over."


- Waitress is a terrible movie: a "romantic" comedy that does not know whether it is a mostly cutesy romcom or a mostly dramatic romcom. The film tells the story of a waitress, Jenna, who is especially good at making pies. She also happens to be married to a scumbag and just found out that she is pregnant. When she decides to give her doctor house calls (if you know what I mean), the situation gets even more complicated.

Before we get into why Waitress is a terrible movie, I have to say that there are a couple of positives in the acting arena. Keri Russell did manage to do a good job overall in her starring role as Jenna, carrying the film as far as she possibly could by handling some of the film's dismal dialogue well, creating generally sympathetic main character, and being naturally enchanting and captivating screen presence. I also liked Adrienne Shelly in her role as Dawn, one of Jenna's friends and fellow waitress (Shelly also wrote and directed the film).

Unfortunately, these are only positive things that I took away from Waitress.

Besides Russell and Shelly, the remaining cast members are down-right bad. Jeremy Sisto overacted throughout the whole film as Earl, the deadbeat husband; Cheryl Hines was annoying as another one of Jenna's friends, Becky; and, although it was surprising to find out he is in fact not dead, Andy Griffith is a nonentity in the film as Old Joe.

The worst performance of the film is awarded to Nathan Fillion - and I say this very begrudgingly as an overall fan of Fillion (especially "Firefly" and "Castle"). He simply did not work in his role as Dr. Pomatter. Fillion was not funny at any point during the film; he failed at adding the "odd" quality to the character that Jenna kept saying he had; and more importantly did not create a likable character in the least. However, Fillion's failure was spurred on by the fact that his Dr. Pomatter character does not have a single logical motive for anything he does throughout the entire movie. At the end of the film when Jenna ends their affair, Pomatter says "So I don't have any say in this?" And I have an easy answer to that question: NO!

Of course you don't have any say in this - you shouldn't have a say in anything you do because you're a moron Doc! You need help. Let's take a reflective look shall we? You are a successful doctor and you are already married to a sweet, beautiful red-head and.... You're fooling around with someone else? Where is the motivation for that?? You sir, are an IDIOT!

As bad as the majority of the performances and characters in Waitress are, the script is what really kills the film. The themes go from cutesy to dark to cutesy to dark to cutesy to dark into infinity and never does either of these directions gel in the film. Pick one and let's get a move on!

But, in the end, it does not matter which path Waitress walks. When the film is cutesy, it is the sighing in bored disbelief cutesy with a corny, groping in the dark attempt at fun romantic comedy. When a scene gets dark, it is the kind of roll-you-eyes, facepalm failed attempt at serious drama - often times due to Sisto's overacting.

Boy, what a combo.

Then we have yet another recurring low point throughout the film: how, in a flash, the attitudes of the characters do a kind of 180 degree backflip that one can only find in the back pages of the Failblog. Jenna hated her baby and then, suddenly, BAM: she loves it. Jenna was afraid of her husband and then, suddenly, BAM- she is no longer afraid of him anymore after labor (or maybe it was the epidural?). And the character backflips are not simply limited to the character of Jenna - everyone is doing them! Dawn hated Ogie and then, suddenly, BAM: she loves him. Cal was a schmuck boss and then, suddenly, BAM: he is spilling his feelings out all over the place. See where I am going with this?

Also, as a sort of side note, if I hear the "Baby Don't You Cry" song that is played over and over and over again throughout the film one more time.... I just might give myself a lethal injection.

In a nutshell, Waitress has a terrible story with terrible dialogue and terrible acting. Dinner is served.

CBC Rating: 4/10

After I saw Waitress, I was very shocked to discover that that Adrienne Shelly was murdered before the film's release. With this in mind, know that I attack Shelly's film Waitress out of my own individual passion for movies and not with a cold shoulder in the face of her death. Shelly's story is a heartbreaking one and I hope that her family has found a way to cope with her most untimely death.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

An Arid Alien Turkey Shoot

- Battle: Los Angeles should not be confused with the "Battle of Los Angeles."

The "Battle of Los Angeles" is the informal name to a 1942 aerial barrage over Los Angeles against what was thought to be a Japanese attack but what turned out to be nothing at all. The incident has been turned into a UFO conspiracy story by many, claiming that the army was in fact shooting at extra-terrestrial aircraft and the government covered up for it later with a story of it being a false alarm. Battle: Los Angeles on the other hand is a 2011 Spring-released film that attempts to be an exciting and powerful alien-slaying action event but ends up an empty adventure filled with awkward characters, predictable outcomes and unintentional laughs.

The story centers around a platoon of US Marines lead by Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) fighting in the Los Angeles area against an alien invasion. This story of a group of soldiers, while certainly a piece of science fiction, allows Battle: Los Angeles to look and feel more like a conventional war film (a-la Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Black Hawk Down (2001)) which does separate it somewhat from other sci-fi movies. Battle: Los Angeles just may have been an exciting and engaging tale if the film did not include so many blunders.

Battle: Los Angeles, frame-to-frame filled with expensive-looking special effects, should have been a cool-looking movie but its appearance is actually one of its biggest shortcomings. The film goes to extraordinary lengths to get the viewer "inside" the film at its own peril; even during scenes with no action (like Sgt. Nantz's beach-side training routine or simple meeting with a colleague) the camera is buzzing about, zooming in-and-out of needlessly crowded close-ups. But this in-your-face style of supposedly intense filmmaking makes the film frequently and irritatingly incoherent. The camera is so shaky that one would think it was positioned on top of an icy surface. The film is sometimes tense, when one can actually make out what is going on in a scene, but this woeful shaky camera style makes the viewer feel less like they are "inside" the action and far more aware that they are watching a film.

The audience also finds that they are unable to focus on any of the characters, if they could even keep track of them all. The film unloads too many characters inside too short a period! The story constantly bounces back and forth from one Marine to the next, often times referring to an off-screen Marine by name which does nothing but confuse the viewer since the character was neither memorable nor discernable from any another Marine.

For some reason, the filmmakers also decided to pack a whole bunch of forced and cheesy supposed depth into all of the many cookie-cutter characters. They are all here: the soon-to-be retired veteran with a haunting past, the hot-shot red neck, the shell-shocked bruiser, the bereaved Marine, the soon-to-be father, the soon-to-be groom, the tough-talking female soldier, the virgin rookie recruit (which allows for many a painfully unfunny never-been-laid joke), the brave citizen, the conveniently competent eye candy lady, a bunch of weepy kids, and many other boring character types that crowd every frame of the film. This was a curious decision. Many other war films feature a large cast of characters but successfully connect them to the audience without attempting to stuff them all with a pointless backstory during the film's opening 15 minutes.

To make matters even worse these recyclable Marine characters are hilariously and poorly portrayed by a detachment of third-rate actors. Aaron Eckhart gives the only good performance of the film as Sgt. Nantz; the rest of the pack clings to his belly like remoras eating the filth off a shark. The acting in Battle: Los Angeles is so bad that it makes you laugh. One cannot help but bust out laughing since these people could not deliver a line well if their lives depended on it. Especially bad are Ramon Rodriguez, constantly looking like he is mid-way through an enema, and Jim Parrack, who is stuck in a perpetual cross-eyed stupor. While this troop battles badass E.T.s for nearly two hours, I just battle the giggles.

However, this cast of Hollywood inferiors is not helped much by Chris Bertonlini's calamitous screenplay. The dialogue is just terrible. I will never understand why some dumb special effects-driven films try to talk so much; shut up and blow stuff up! When not unbearably cheesy and/or predictable, the dialogue in Battle: Los Angeles is hilariously lame and generic: think lots of cliched barrack chatter, on-the-field shouting and right-on-time rousing speeches.

Battle: Los Angeles, despite all the attempts to beef up the story with forced emotional elements, never gives the audience any reason to care about any of its characters or anything that is happening on screen. The failure to connect the audience to the story and characters is an even bigger mistake than simply casting a bad bunch of actors to read off a poor script or employing the modern shaky camera technique. The audience simply cannot invest any piece of themselves into the movie viewing experience because they feel nothing for what the characters are going through. Nobody likes the idea of aliens overrunning the human race, but if these guys are our last line of defense I just do not see any way around it. Where are Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum when you need them?

And while this band of Marines fight through homes and alleys to ward off the alien army, I could not help but wonder if Los Angeles would really be that big of a loss. Think about it: the crime, the smog, the Clippers, Gloria Allred.... Would you really miss it?

CBC Rating: 5/10

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Social Network (2010)

Facebook me? Facebook you!

- I know who will not be accepting director David Fincher's friend request on Facebook: (co)founder of Facebook and the focus of Fincher's film The Social Network of course - Mark Zuckerberg.

Based on the book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich, The Social Network tells the story that Zuckerberg does not want you to hear: the creation of Facebook and all of the partying, insults, backstabbing, hooded sweatshirts, Asian chicks, and lawsuits that went with it.

The Social Network is a very absorbing film. While the cinematography itself is good, albeit nothing particularly special, it is the story and setting that really makes the film engrossing. David Fincher tells the engaging story very well with sharp editing, intertwining flashbacks and real time very well, and excelling in the presentation of college life - the partying, the sex, the drugs, and the immaturity of American college life are exposed to an embarrassingly accurate extent. The progression of events of the Zuckerberg/Facebook story is a particularly fascinating one and this telling of how the cultural phenomenon known as Facebook originated, who was involved, who came out on top, who got thrown under the bus, how fast it grew, and how fragile the system was makes every scene of The Social Network engaging.

Thanks to the great acting from the principle actors, the film is even more engaging. Jesse Eisenberg is phenomenal as Mark Zuckerberg, chewing up and spitting out the fizzling dialogue with extreme speed (not heard since Bogart's 40s tirades) and hilarious sarcasm while creating a character of whom the audience develops a deep love/hate relationship for. Rooney Mara and Andrew Garfield are also very impressive supporters and Justin Timberlake's performance as entrepreneur, playboy, and Napster founder Sean Parker, while vastly overrated by fans and the media, is very good as well.

Clearly not every scene in The Social Network is 100% accurate to what transpired in real life - no film that is based on historical events has ever been 100% accurate - but Zuckerberg's circuits have nonetheless overloaded with anger over his portrayal in the film. But even if the film is wrong in its presentation of certain events or characterizations of the people involved, there is an engaging narrative and a tremendous irony in the story of a back-stabbing creation of the epitome of narcissism in a narcissistic culture by a completely arrogant and obsessive but brilliant narcissist featured in The Social Network.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Dilemma (2011)

Who Killed The Electric Sports Car?

- I honestly do not know who had the bigger dilemma: Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn), who under ever complicating circumstances had to find a way to tell his best friend Nick (Kevin James) that he caught Nick's wife kissing another man, or Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, who had the daunting task of trying to make The Dilemma (2011) a watchable film.

The Dilemma is a painfully unfunny and embarrassingly bad buddy/romantic comedic drama from Ron Howard. The multitudes of negative aspects in the film not only overshadow any of the film's minor positives but beat them to a bloody pulp, proceeding to steal their wallets and identities.

The film is so absurd that one does not know where to begin. Oh wait, I take that back; I will begin by saying that there is no way in hell that Vince Vaughn and Kevin James could score Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder! Ah, the magic of movies....

Never mind for a moment the fact that they romance out-of-their-league ladies; one wonders why comedic actors Vince Vaughn and especially Kevin James were cast at all since they are not a good fit for this type of film. The Dilemma, while surely featuring a lot of comedic elements, includes many dramatic elements that make it a far cry from the kind of full-on comedy that one would expect Vaughn and/or James to star. Because they are more comedic than dramatic actors, the casting of James and to a lesser extent Vaughn immediately dumbs down the drama and changes the overall feel of the film from a dramedy (think Sideways (2004) or Little Miss Sunshine (2006)) to more of a pure fratish comedy (like any of the number of films in Vaughn or James' filmography) with the occasional dash of deflated drama.

None of the mostly misplaced actors impress but Kevin James is without a doubt the most misplaced and least impressive member of the cast. James' suburban everyman persona simply does not fit his character: Nick, a kind of troubled genius mechanic, who, together with Ronny, is developing an electric engine for GM's electric sports car models.

Wait a minute: An electric sports car? Are you kidding me? An electric sports car is about as cool as a pimped-up and decked-out Toyota Corolla.

On top of being miscast, James is just not funny in the least. Hating Kevin James seems to be kind of fashionable nowadays, what with his string of critically-panned movies as of late (from Chuck & Larry to Paul Blart to Grown Ups and everything in between), but I actually think James has the capacity for a good performance. For example, I thought he was not only funny but just all-around good in Hitch (2005) and Grilled (2006) which were both a far better fit for James' style of comedic acting. But in The Dilemma, James is completely out-of-his-element in the dramatic scenes and cannot get the audience to crack a smile, let alone burst out in a belly laugh, because he comes off extremely clumsy in the comedic scenes - perhaps all because he is quite simply the wrong choice to play the character.

Known for giving great performances, Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder unfortunately do not offset the cast all that much. Certainly not bad in the role, Connelly is clearly overqualified to be some lifeless love interest - it is like hiring a physicist as a stock boy. She does what she can with the character but is just not given enough to do in the film to really be impressive. Why Connelly is wasting her time and talents co-starring in this awful film in the first place, we may never know.... Ryder's character is certainly a bit more colorful than Connelly's character but even she does not impress all that much. At a certain point in the film, I began to wonder if Ryder even knew that she was acting in a movie, as I get the impression that she is this crazy all of the time.

While perhaps not the ideal choice for Ronny (since a role of this nature requires an actor with greater range), Vince Vaughn is my pick for the best member of the cast. In an interesting shift in role choices as of late, Vaughn has been leaving behind much of his frat-boy ways (i.e. Old School (2003) and Wedding Crashers (2005)) to star as an ordinary guy who is a film's lone moral character amidst immorality and selfishness. Couple's Retreat (2009) is a perfect example of a Vince Vaughn lone moral character and Vaughn's role in The Dilemma certainly fits into this trend as well. But the fact that Vaughn's Ronny character is the film's moral center does not make Vaughn's performance good in and of itself. What makes Vaughn work in the role more than the rest of his co-stars is that he brings a certain authenticity and presence to the character while simply not making as many miscalculations. Vaughn is not particularly hilarious as Ronny but he does fare much better than his co-stars in creating a generally sympathetic character while not completely failing to convince during the film's dramatic moments.

Unfortunately, The Dilemma has far worse problems than its not-so-great cast. Ron Howard simply does not form a high-quality or funny movie out of Allan Loeb's screenplay; The Dilemma is not humorous, thoughtful, atmospheric, or particularly consistent in any area.

First of all, The Dilemma also has no flow or energy. Howard films The Dilemma well enough to visually distinguish it from other style-less modern comedies but not well enough that any tangible atmosphere can be felt. Secondly, The Dilemma is just not a funny movie. I am honestly not sure how much of the failed attempts at comedy is the fault of screenwriter Allan Loeb because much of the film's comedy seems improvised by Vaughn and James; however, I am sure that, no matter who exactly is at fault, very few sequences in the film actually end up funny. Whether it is Channing Tatum's irritating strung-out rocker character, Queen Latifah talking about her "lady wood," or Vaughn making a painfully bad anniversary toast, the comedy in The Dilemma feels awkward and uncomfortable instead of amusing or clever.

Also, The Dilemma has little narrative congruency. The film opens with the introduction of its main themes but then, rather than continuing to tell the story with the themes in mind, continues on with some rather unfunny skits before picking the themes up again about 40 minutes into the story. This incongruent narrative gives the film a rather unpleasant disjointed feel.

Howard does even not wrap up the film's main themes or provide much in the way of closure on the entire story. One gets the impression through a number of different scenes in the film that Howard and company attempted The Dilemma to actually be about something, rather than just exist as a knee-slapping good time with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James. However, the film ends up feeling like it is about nothing at all. In more than one instance, The Dilemma takes the time to explore ideas of how much a person does or can know about another but by the end it neither lands on a firm conclusion nor opens things up for the audience to draw their own. The film instead simply forgets all its thematic elements at the moment where other films would have placed extreme importance on them, which really takes the air out of the story.

But, hey, who wants to think about the nature of relationships when we can watch Vince Vaughn and Kevin James screw around at a Chicago Blackhawks game?

The whole thing is really quite perplexing: many films in Howard's filmography (Cinderella Man (2005), Apollo 13 (1995), Frost/Nixon (2008), and more) are high quality films with great characters, themes, and atmosphere. By contrast, The Dilemma fails the viewer in these and so many more ways that it becomes hard to believe that Ron Howard was the one sitting in the director's chair.

CBC Rating: 4/10

Black Swan (2010)

It Wasn't "Perfect"....

- The 2010 film award season saw Black Swan plucking up many an award nomination and, while not being a total goose egg itself, the film was worth a grand total of only one of those award nods.

Natalie Portman's performance of Nina Sayers, a ballerina who begins to lose her mind trying (as she is specifically told) to lose herself into the part of the Black Swan for an off-beat interpretation of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," has been winning the vast majority of the awards for Black Swan - and for good reason: she is the only aspect of the film that deserves any form of high praise or awards. The film calls on Portman to play a couple of different versions of one character and she convincingly rises to the challenge; but what is most impressive about Portman's performance is the way that she portrays Nina's constantly evolving emotional state in a very tangible way. The high skill required to play the role of Nina is quite apparent and Portman's performance is very unique; subsequently, she carries the film - while on her tippy toes.

Beyond Portman's great individual acting effort, I think that the film offers little of value. Director Darren Aronofsky successfully creates suspense (most of the time) but his stylistic choices leave much to be desired. I was impressed with the way that the film uses CGI effects as a part of its visual symbolism, however Black Swan on the whole is just another one of these modern films that tries too hard to look like an off-beat Indy flick. I, for one, am fed up with the overuse of the contemporary hand-held camera shots in film in general and there is a particular over-reliance on the technique in this movie. Perhaps the overuse of mobile hand-held shots was employed to make up for the bland framing choices? For such a potentially interesting character and story, Black Swan is not particularly striking or unique on a visual scale.

But the characters and story end up not particularly interesting either - and not necessarily due to Aronofsky. None of the characters are in any way relatable or likable on paper. While Portman's individual performance of Nina is good, the character herself is far too awkward for the audience to be able to fully relate – or to even enjoy watching.

No one who is a part of the supporting cast helps out either. Vincent Cassel (as the self-imposing director), Barbara Hershey (as Nina's broken mother), and Winona Ryder (as the washed-up recently fired has-been) are really uninspired in their roles as characters we have seen time and time again. Mila Kunis is also not as impressive as she is touted to be here in Black Swan. Her performance is good but has really been over-praised; probably because the heavy-weights on her job résumé are a supporting role on "That 70s Show" and lesser voice-over work for "Family Guy" and the fact that she shows that she can at least *do* the kind of dramatic acting here in Black Swan has sort of carried people away a bit too far.

A great individual performance from Natalie Portman and a couple of other admirable elements are not, in and of themselves, enough to make Black Swan a great overall film. Black Swan is in fact an incredibly overrated film, in my view, when considering its place in the 2010 film awards season (specifically its Best Picture Oscar nomination). Packed full of gimmicks – freaky imaging, fashionable but shallow Indy style, throw-away lesbian scene, etc. – and lacking material for the viewer to really sink their teeth into, Black Swan offers little to spark the imagination, to entertain, or to appreciate.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Unstoppable (2010)

Dudes On A Train

- Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington re-team for another fast-paced, high-stakes, heart-pumping action thriller in Unstoppable.

That's right, another one.

Unstoppable is, in short, about two train operators who take it upon themselves to chase down and stop an unmanned runaway train that is carrying explosive materials through urban Pennsylvania.

The plot is pretty predictable with Scott's direction being fairly run-of-the-mill; especially clichéd are some of the film's visuals and the editing back and forth between shocked loved ones and supposed tense sequences featuring characters in danger. Scott does not let the story down per se nor does he fail to successfully execute a sequence in any particular way; the film is just not as remarkable or nail-biting as the back of the film's DVD case might suggest.

The acting follows suit. Denzel Washington offers his usual kind of cinematic persona that we have seen (and most of the time enjoyed) over and over again to the role of Frank, the veteran engineer; while Chris Pine offers a middling performance that impresses little in his role as Will the damaged rookie conductor.

One of the few interesting aspects of the film is how it gives backstories to Frank and Will just through the short exchanges that the two men have inside the train cab. The special effects and action are also, expectedly, some of the film's better qualities.

Overall, I would not say that Unstoppable is a bad film – it is just an average film. The tension is average, the acting is average, the direction is average, and the enjoyment level is, well, average. Unstoppable is enjoyable, throw-away cinematic entertainment that will leave your memory about as quickly as the film runs (about an hour and a half).

CBC Rating: 6/10

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ryan's Daughter (1970)

Epic In Every Sense

- In the small town of Kinnery on the Dingle Peninsula in World War I era Ireland, a time of great tension and anti-British sentiment on the Emerald Isle, the young Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) spends her endlessly idle days inside her wild imagination. She is used to getting whatever she wants, having been spoiled rotten by her father throughout her entire life, and her most recent fancy is Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), a middle-aged schoolteacher of whom Rosy has a schoolgirl crush on. But when she again gets what she wants and the two get married, the union is not all she hoped it would be. Not so much time passes when a new commanding British officer, the crippled and forever shell-shocked Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones), is assigned to the town after a tour of duty in the Great War. Perhaps inevitably, Rose and Randolph have an impromptu run-in at the local pub and the two of them flare up a steamy backwoods romance. But how long can an affair between a married Irish woman and a high-ranking British soldier stay secret in a small and unforgiving town?

Drawing ever so slightly from Gustave Flaubert's famous novel Madame Bovary, the small-town story of Ryan's Daughter gets an epic, emotionally powerful and visually beautiful treatment from director David Lean (The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)) .

Despite being nominated for four Oscars (winning two of them), Ryan's Daughter was not well received by the public or the critics in its day. Oddly enough, Lean's epic style was one of the film's most frequently criticized elements; the idea behind the criticism being that Lean should not have taken a large-scale, epic approach to the clandestine, small-town story. This I do not understand.

Firstly, although the story is intimate and set in a small-town, the ideas it explores are very big. The emotions of love and nationalism that surge throughout Ryan's Daughter are powerful and absolutely fit Lean's epic execution. Secondly, the brilliance of the film's visuals does not overshadow the story or the characters. The film sets its story and characters inside a grand, visional splendid picture, yes, but they remain very much at the centerpiece of the film. The fact that Ryan's Daughter tells an intimate story in an epic fashion does not hurt the film at all.

Finally, the fact that the film was originally criticized for this epic, awe-inspiring look and feel is bizarre since the epic nature is one of the film's best features. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous with many wide shots of the amazing Irish landscape, majestic fairytale-like imagery, and incredible scenes that are the cinematic equivalent to an out-of-body experience. The blending of Lean's big-picture style of storytelling and Freddie Young's exquisite cinematography - not forgetting Maurice Jarre's beautiful score - gives the harrowing story of Rosy Ryan's life a very unique feel that is strongly compelling as well as aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, while Ryan's Daughter has an incredible look, the characters and performances of those characters are incredible as well. Sarah Miles headlines a great cast, giving a terrific Oscar/Golden Globe/BAFTA Award-nominated performance as Rosy Ryan. Incredibly stunning in both beauty and characterization, Miles exudes forceful vulnerability, peculiarity, and charm into her character.
In supporting roles, Christopher Jones keeps his majorly distraught Major Doryan character believable, subtle, and effective; Leo McKern is a marvelous loud-mouthed coward as Rosie's father; and Trevor Howard is wonderful as the wise old Father Collins, Rosy's good friend and the town's conscience.

John Mills' Michael the village idiot character, the only performance of the film that won an Oscar, is, interestingly enough, one of the film's less than fantastic aspects. Mills is not awful in the role; to his credit, Mills creates a sympathetic character in Michael and there are times you really do forget that Mills himself is actually not mentally challenged. However, it was a mistake to make the Michael character out to be the only person in the town who sees things as they really are; who truly understands what is really going on all the time. This aspect of the character really falls flat because Michael is portrayed by Mills to be rather abnormal and, well, dumb; so the character's supposed omniscience is nearly impossible to take seriously.

While most of the cast gives very memorable performances, Robert Mitchum's performance of Charles Shaughnessy is the most remarkable. This comes as no surprise since it is Robert Mitchum we are dealing with here, but what is surprising is just how good he is in a role that is so far removed from his iconic Hollywood tough guy persona. Few would have sought Mitchum out to play an Irish school teacher but Lean knew that Mitchum was perfect for the role.
Wielding a great Irish accent as Charles Shaughnessy in Ryan's Daughter, Mitchum gives a scene-stealing intense yet calmly restrained performance as a highly intelligent, respectable, and affectionate ordinary townsperson. Mitchum gives a stunning performance that not only makes Charles a very interesting character to watch but highlights his own incredible range as an actor.

Despite the many awards wins and nominations, the financial and critical failure of Ryan's Daughter in 1970 caused director David Lean much stress and grief - in fact, he would not make another film until A Passage To India in 1984. While initially torn apart by critics upon its release, time has been good to Ryan's Daughter these many decades later. Cutting through the historical and critical baggage, Ryan's Daughter is a shimmering 1970s cinematic gem that is equal to, if not superior to, many of the other classic David Lean-directed films.

CBC Rating: 9/10

To Have And Have Not (1944)

"You know how to whistle, don't you?
You just put your lips together and blow...."
- The Howard Hawks classic To Have And Have Not is most famously known as the debut of actress Lauren Bacall and the first film to star Bacall and her future Hollywood husband Humphrey Bogart. The line "You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow" ought to ring a bell....

Beyond its two marquee stars, To Have And Have Not is memorable in its own right overall as an entertaining WWII romantic adventure; however, while it is a little bit disappointing in some areas, in the end it is a very entertaining classic romantic adventure film.

To Have And Have Not is an easily recommendable and unquestionably classic film but it did not quite exceed my expectations. Many cite the fact that Bogart and Bacall fall in love for real on screen as one of the film's greatest elements and, while the future honey & hubby certainly do fall in love on screen, that ultimately is not enough in-and-of itself for me to list To Have And Have Not in the same league with the best of the 1940s. I would even go as far as saying that To Have And Have Not is a tad overrated because of the overstated impact of Bogart and Bacall's real-life romance on the entire film – especially since both would go on to make better films together.

Also, to my surprise, To Have And Have Not resembles a past Bogart hit Casablanca (1942) a bit too much. First, there is a bar/hotel in To Have And Have Not that basically doubles for "Rick's Café" from Casablanca as the hub of activity and a sanctuary for the characters. Then, there is the Martinique setting which is a haven for all members of the Allied Powers and is populated by French Police and Nazis – a setting and accompanying atmosphere that is similar to Casablanca. Also, Bogart himself must have had deja vu as his character Steve in To Have And Have Not goes down a similar road that his character Rick Blaine does in Casablanca, going from a cynic to an idealist because of the love and influence of a woman. To Have And Have Not even features a friendly piano player (in Hoagy Carmichael)! To Have And Have Not separates itself from Casablanca in many ways - especially by not being nearly as dark, powerful, or poignant a film - but its similarities are a bit too stark to ignore.

But I do not want to give the impression that I found To Have And Have Not to be an overall bad or disappointing film because the exact opposite is true. While perhaps far from brilliant, To Have And Have Not is certainly an entertaining comedic WWII romance/adventure film. Bogart and Bacall are inspired casting (Hawks would later claim the "discovery" of Lauren Bacall). Bogart is terrific; tough, cynical, and sarcastic – one scene in To Have And Have Not features Bogie in one of his most hardboiled states. Lauren Bacall is stunning in this picture. To Have And Have Not is without a doubt her finest performance. Bacall's performance acts like a double-edged sword however, since she shows a potential for a level of acting that she never really reached. But as an on-screen presence, Bacall excels; and together with her future hubby, Bogart and Bacall are an unforgettable screen duo that weave a delightful romance.

Quite recognizably a Howard Hawks film, To Have And Have Not is funny, stylish, often edgy and has a lot of heart. While Bogart and Bacall create the very authentic and captivating central romance, Hawks also manages to throw in one of his trademark "buddy" sub-story lines through Walter Brennan's Eddie character (who tends to get a little irritating sometimes – surprise, surprise).

In the end, To Have And Have Not has a place in cinema history largely because of Bogart and Bacall's on-screen and off-screen relationship; however, To Have And Have Not is a great film for more than just the Hollywood romance. To Have And Have Not is an undeniably entertaining WWII adventure but Hawks, Bogart, and Bacall would later re-team to create a much better film (see The Big Sleep (1946)).

CBC Rating: 8/10

The Wild Bunch (1969)

"It ain't what it used to be – but it'll do"

- Set inside the Mexican Revolution of 1913, The Wild Bunch follows a bunch of aged outlaws as they go on the run from the law and the railroad in the United States to racketeering across the border for a Mexican warlord. They are not a young bunch; these outlaws are relics of an era were the western gun-slinging outlaw could thrive.... or at least fit in. But time has betrayed them - horses are replaced with cars; rifles for machine guns. Mexico, for this bunch, is the last bastion of the American West but even the chaotic sands of the Mexican frontier cannot halt the changing winds of time. And yet amidst these changing times a kind of integrity and honor code that comes with being a ruthless outlaw remains ("When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished! *We're* finished! All of us!")....

A bit controversial in its day because of the gratuitous depiction of western violence, The Wild Bunch showcases a senseless, cruel, and almost sadistic portrait of the west. The west, in this film, is a bloody, back-stabbing place of hopelessness and death in a way that had largely not been depicted in the genre. Director Sam Peckinpah spares the audience nothing with his grueling and off-putting yet gripping depiction of western violence – but amid the repulsive nature of the bloodshed is some flat-out innovative action pieces (specifically a wonderful destruction of a bridge) as well as some complimenting dustings of humor.

Peckinpah's dark and violent vision of the west is brought to life through the film's interesting characters. The Wild Bunch sees strong performances from William Holden as the shrewd Pike (with an expected amount of added dimension – although I wish that Robert Mitchum had not turned down the role first since he would have been perfect), Ernest Borgnine as the steadfast Dutch (with an expected amount of added humor), Edmond O'Brien as old man Sykes, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the tempestuous Gorch brothers, and Jaime Sanchez as fiery Angel.

Out of the entire impressive cast headlined by a sound William Holden, it was the supporting performance of Robert Ryan that actually impressed me the most. Perhaps known more for playing villains throughout his career, Ryan takes a sympathetic turn with an underplayed but heavy and insightful performance of Deke Thornton. A conflicted man in search of freedom and redemption – Thornton is the most interesting and relatable character in the film. Thornton plays a fascinating role in the story as an outlaw who is let out of jail to pursue the wild bunch. He is a good man and does not want to be in the position that he has been forced into, especially because of his past friendship with Pike. However, the railroad has him by the short hairs and he has the choice of either being forever locked up for the crimes he committed in the past or, with the help of the unpredictable monsters he has the misfortune of working with, can be set free once he catches or kills the bunch. Thornton does not walk with Pike, Dutch and the rest of the bunch – rather, he chases and shoots at them - but he is most certainly one of them. Deke Thornton, on top of being one of the most captivating characters that Ryan has ever played, is the character that does much, if not the most, to capture the integrity and defeated spirit of The Wild Bunch.

While not exactly a redefining film for the western genre, The Wild Bunch is a western that, along with a few other westerns of the era (such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973)), definitely opened the genre up with a then atypical take on the western film. I think that the importance of the film's thematic and psychological aspects on the western film are a bit overplayed since the genre was not nearly as shallow as a whole as some of the film's champions suggest. One could argue that the characters and themes of The Wild Bunch are handled in a more powerful way than other westerns have (I would not necessarily); but there have been plenty of rich characters and thoughtful themes in western films prior to the arrival of The Wild Bunch in 1969. Instead, the significance of The Wild Bunch within the genre has more to do with its horrific depiction of violence and grim interpretation of the changing early 20th Century west.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Barry Lyndon (1975)

An In-between Kubrick Epic:
Lacking In Key Ways While Incorporating Exquisite Visuals And Music

- Widely-celebrated director Stanley Kubrick puts William Makepeace Thackeray's novel on screen in 1975's Barry Lyndon. The film chronicles the life of the mid-16th Century Irishman Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) as he devolves from a simple pauper in the Irish countryside to the wealthy but unlucky nobleman Barry Lyndon.

Also unlucky is the fact that the story is generally uninteresting. While the script is fine with good storytelling structure and adequate dialogue, the progression of events that make up the story are just not very captivating. Unfortunately, the film's trail of minuses does not end here.

Barry Lyndon especially lacks in the way of its starring actor. Through Ryan O'Neal, Redmond Barry Lyndon is a wooden and generally emotionless character. Outside of the occasional crying spell, O'Neal's Redmond goes through the motions without hardly any expression in his presentation or emotion in his delivery. To add insult to injury, O'Neal cannot even squeak out an Irish accent. Not even a matter of the accent not being strong enough or requiring a touch up here or there, O'Neal just cannot do it and while attempting a passable Irish accent in some scenes he does not even attempt the accent in others!

Unfortunately, O'Neal is not alone when it comes to giving bad performances in the film: Leon Vitali is utterly unconvincing and weak in his role as Lord Bullingdon and Steven Berkoff (known for purposefully overracting on film because he despises the medium) is just as irritating as he always is with his inane but luckily brief presence as Lord Ludd.

As bad as O'Neal and some other supporting performers are in Barry Lyndon, just about every other major actor in film offers an impressive performance that serves their character well. A stand-out cast member for me was actress Marisa Berenson who is extraordinary in her emotionally broken Lady Lyndon character. Unlike her co-star, Berenson exerts plenty of feeling and emotion into her performance, leading to many eye-opening scenes involving her character. Other actors such as Diana Körner, Hardy Krüger, Frank Middlemass, Leonard Rossiter, and others also give effective and memorable supporting performances in the film.

In addition to the successful supporting performances, the film features other positive elements that go a long way towards balancing out the largely uninteresting story and handful of flat character acting. Often said of Barry Lyndon is how it looks like a painting come to life. This is an apt description; Barry Lyndon is wonderfully framed and colored - John Alcott surely deserved his Best Cinematography Oscar for this film and Stanley Kubrick does an amazing job painting Barry Lyndon on his silver screen canvas. On top of that, however, the camera movements are great as well. Not overly grand or in your face, camera close ups of the character's faces and zoom outs revealing the fullness of each shot thrive in Barry Lyndon. The sets, make-up, and costumes featured in the film are also top-drawer.

The music featured in Barry Lyndon is also a high-point for the film. Made up of spectacular classical pieces (from the likes of Händel, Schubert, Mozart, and more), the atmosphere and emotion of Barry Lyndon is greatly enhanced. Celtic music legends The Chieftains also lend their musical talents to the film with some truly wonderful Celtic tunes that contribute greatly to the diverse nature of the film's powerful musical dynamic.

For some, Stanley Kubrick can do no wrong. For me however, Kubrick can do wrong, right, and everything in between. With its stunning visuals, wonderful music, and good supporting actors, Barry Lyndon incorporates plenty of high-quality film aspects to be a mostly respectable and enjoyable film overall. At the same time however, with its generally uninteresting story and soulless main performance, Barry Lyndon was not a completely satisfying film experience and it ends up an in-between Kubrick film in my view.

CBC Rating: 6/10

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

The Claws Are Out
In This Average Superhero Flick

- If you were unable to figure it out on your own, X-Men Origins: Wolverine traces the roots of Marvel superhero Wolverine before he joined the X-Men. A big action-packed mutant-filled tale, Wolverine's first live-action silver-screen solo act ends up an average superhero romp.

As simple as the idea of Wolverine's origins may sound, the film becomes plenty convoluted with every extra superhero and villain shoved into the story. Wolverine, Sabretooth, William Stryker, John Wraith, Kayla Silverfox, The Blob, Bolt, Gambit, Agent Zero, Deadpool, Weapon XI, Scott Summers....

WHOA! Too many characters! I thought the film was supposed to be about- Oh.... I dunno.... Wolverine?

Because of the large number of other characters that populate the film, the focus on Wolverine is often lost and the development of the character suffers as a result.

The many instances of clichéd dialogue and moments that link the film together do not make Wolverine any more entertaining or interesting either. How many times have we seen a hero arch his head back and scream "NOOOO!!" for a good 30 seconds or decide not to kill a bad guy because, if they did, the hero will "be no better than them"? Seriously, we have seen these movie clichés an uncountable amount of times.... Why put these types of scenes into movies anymore?

The individual characterizations of the characters throughout the film vary from poor to great and do not make up for any of the film's storytelling woes. As Wolverine (or Logan, the character's actual name) Hugh Jackman has never wowed me as much of an actor; he is not a completely bad actor but he usually does not offer up anything particularly special. However, some of Jackman's best performances have been his portrayals of Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men films and he does not disappoint in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Jackman actually gives what I would say is his best performance of Logan/Wolverine in this film since he, as the film's lead, has more screentime in which to develop the character than he had in previous X-Men films, where he was only a supporting actor.

However, stealing the film away every time he roars into a scene is Liev Schreiber with an impressive performance as monstrous super villain Victor Creed (AKA: Sabretooth). Schreiber does what any good performer does in a mediocre-to-bad film - making the clichéd dialogue he is forced to say work and haunting the film with his presence as a formidable and likable villain character - and the film by and large owes its successful moments to him.

Where good performances exist in the film (Jackman, Schreiber; as well as Dominic Monaghan in a small role as Bolt) there are also the many bad performances among them: Danny Huston (Stryker) and Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) are irritating, Lynn Collins gives a weak performance as Silverfox, and Taylor Kitsch (Gambit) and Daniel Henney (Agent Zero) overact their parts to death.  A film supposedly about one guy but populated with so many extra characters that are not particularly interesting nor portrayed well does not exactly hold much of a recipe for success.

But I know what you are thinking: "Who cares if the story and performances are not perfect? The action is going to be awesome!" Well, think again because the special effects are a great let-down. Sometimes the action works (the opening scenes are especially well done) but, unlike the 2008 Marvel film Iron Man or 2009 summer hit Star Trek where the effects blend perfectly into the rest of the film, the usage of green screens or CGI (computer generated imagery) creations are all-too obvious and this takes the viewer out of the film.

It seems as if director Gavin Hood's answer to everything is this kind of lackluster green screen and CGI. Need a sequence with a chopper and a copter? Make Jackman "drive" behind a green screen and CGI the rest of the scene! Creed needs to run like an animal? CGI the bad boy! Patrick Stewart makes a cameo appearance? CGI his face to look younger! The CGI never ends and, instead of real stunts, the film uses this fake-looking CGI and green screen technique in almost every frame.

Overall, I can see how X-Men Origins: Wolverine could be viewed as a marginally entertaining film. After all, Jackman was born to play Wolverine, Schreiber is a fantastic villain, and comic-book violence abounds. However, by not offering much more than your average superhero film and not operating at high enough level, Wolverine was more of a tiresome movie experience for yours truly.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Friday, June 17, 2011

Due Date (2010)

Moans, Groans,
And Robert Downey Jr.

- Finishing up a business trip in Atlanta, Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) is in a hurry to get back to Los Angeles for the planned C-section birth of his child. But the shenanigans of one bizarre SOB Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), an aspiring "actor" whose father has just passed away, puts Peter on the no-fly list, stranding him on the opposite side of the country. With no mode of transportation (and he left his wallet on the plane - maybe), Peter's only option to make it home for the birth of his child is to ride shotgun with his newly-made enemy Ethan on a cross-country road trip from Atlanta to LA.

Adventure, sorrow, friendship, weirdness, drug use, pain, and some hilarity ensue.

Todd Phillips, the writer and director of such awful "comedies" as Old School (2003) and Starsky & Hutch (2004) as well as the successful but average low-brow giggler The Hangover (2009) brings you the above story (no, it is not just you: the plot does ring heavily of Planes, Trains, And Automobiles (1987)) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis with 2010's Due Date.

I was a bit cautious when approaching Due Date because Todd Phillips has a history of not making my kind of movie; I have an extreme hatred of Old School and was not particularly thrilled by The Hangover, for example. Based on his filmography, Phillip's idea of comedy seems to be that grown men never grow up and act like moronic college frat guys their entire lives, getting drunk and into trouble all of the time - which clashes with my idea of what is worthwhile and funny on the most fundamental of levels.

Needless to say, the prospect of actually paying money to see another Todd Phillips movie did not exactly excite me but the enticement of watching Robert Downey Jr. in a lead comedy role eventually won me over in the end - and I am glad that it did, for the most part.

Overall, while far from being a great comedy, Due Date is an enjoyable movie experience (certainly a much better film than any other of Phillips' garden variety fratcoms). The film does include a heavy amount of the classless and witless brand of comedy that has made Phillips oddly famous and successful (including one-too-many less-than-inspired pot-smoking jokes and one especially disgusting scene of a carnal nature) but a lot of creative and funny bits exist throughout the film in a significant enough number to make it a funny movie overall.

Still fresh from is recent rise to fame in The Hangover, Zach Galifianakis stars as the weird and irritating pestilence Ethan Tremblay in the film. Galifianakis has a lot of funny moments throughout the film but, unfortunately, his trademark comedic style is frequently hard to swallow. The Ethan Tremblay character is simply too dumb, strange, zany, and altogether unlikable; Galifianakis does less to create a likable guy that the audience can grant any sympathy towards (let alone make us laugh) and more to create a really, really creepy fellow that the audience, had they been in Peter's shoes, would have avoided at all costs. The comedic styling of Zach Galifianakis, in my opinion, could use more real world wit than the cheap college-brand shock humor that he regularly employs.

As one might assume, Robert Downey Jr. carries the film almost completely. Any other actor playing the part of Peter Highman would have probably been relegated to being Galifianakis' frustrated straight-man in the film but Downey makes the role a force of its own, creating a genuine character with problems and flaws of his own. While Zach Galifianakis makes a genuine fool out of himself on screen, creating an unlikable character, Robert Downey Jr. creates a character that is not only funny but also the film's main source of humanity.
In addition to creating an enjoyable lead character for the audience to invent in, Robert Downey Jr. also, quite simply, performs good comedy. Downey's impeccable comedic timing and scene-stealing silent expressions do the film a tremendous service on their own, often times even making an unfunny film moment featuring a muddled Zach Galifianakis antic or a dim Todd Phillips line actually funny.

In the end, good overtakes the bad in Due Date – and I would cautiously recommend the film for those looking for a laugh mainly because of Robert Downey Jr.'s very fine and funny performance.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Book Of Eli (2010)

"I walk by faith - not by sight...."

- Thirty-one years after the last major war scorched the earth and obliterated just about every living thing, throwing human civilization back an age or two, the mysterious Eli walks westward- by faith, not by sight. Eli is on a journey across a dangerous and unforgiving land full of rapists, cannibals, and thieves carrying a book that will change the world forever. En route westward, he runs into Carnegie, the crooked tyrant of a small town who is looking for that same book that Eli carries – but, unlike Eli, he desires the book for evil in the hope that it will expand his violent, oppressive power. Together with Carnegie's slave Solara, Eli must protect the book at all costs – for humanity's sake.

The Book Of Eli resonated with me right from the word "go" because I am a sucker for post-apocalyptic tales in general. Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell (2001)), filmmakers who were previously unknown to me, direct the film to great effect. Wielding a wonderful sense of style, the Hughes Brothers create a dark but visually splendid film world (as all post-apocalyptic worlds should be) that echoes both science fiction as well as western motifs.

The film is also teeming with very exciting action sequences that are handled superbly by the Hughes Brothers. In an industry that sees more films littered with action that lack style these days, The Book Of Eli is incredibly refreshing through the way that the Hughes Brothers stylishly and creatively film their action scenes (I especially enjoyed a silhouetted skirmish seen early on in the film).

Of course, The Book Of Eli is more than the action and visuals and the Hughes Brothers also score high when it comes to telling the thoughtful and emotional story. Some of the most powerful scenes are those that actually include no dialogue – which is just an example of great directing. Dropping the ball a couple of times with the occasional poorly realized cheesy scene, the Brothers, overall, deserve great credit for a their stylish and exciting way with visuals and the overall thoughtful and atmospheric feel that they convey.

The featured acting is also a hit. Mila Kunis and Jennifer Beals stand out with strong performances and Gary Oldman does what Gary Oldman does best: playing a colorful villain. The supporting performances are good but star Denzel Washington is absolutely terrific in the film, giving one of his finest performances with a subtle and extraordinary compelling portrayal of the mysterious Eli. The character of Eli is a tremendously physical part for Washington and not just in terms of the action. Washington impresses as Eli far less through the way he handles the action scenes (though Washington certainly hits the action scenes out of the park, studying martial arts under one of Bruce Lee's protégés for the role) and far more through the way that he paints a layered character for us all on screen with very little words but remarkable presence and unspoken depth.

A story that had to take guts to tell in Hollywoodland (an environment which probably holds Emperor Nero in higher esteem than Billy Graham), The Book Of Eli holds more than just heavy Christian undertones: God is basically a character in the film and characters are actually caught on-screen praying! The idea that the Word of God is needed in the world permeates throughout the whole film; and amongst the dark themes and violence that makes sense in the post-apocalyptic world there is a hope that because God *is* good and in control - always - evil, though it exists, will always loose to the will of God. Many will write off The Book Of Eli because of its Christian message (it's interesting how movies with Christian messages are "propaganda" but movies like V For Vendetta (2006) are "spectacular" and "genius") but I found The Book Of Eli to be a thoughtful, stylish, exciting, and well-acted post-apocalyptic action thriller.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen Brothers
And The "League of Morons"

- The Coen Brothers decided to follow up their multi-Oscar-winning cerebral crime thriller, No Country For Old Men (2007), by staying imaginative but going comical. Working with an ensemble cast of Hollywood all-stars, the Coens deliver an odd yet interesting and dark yet funny comedic thriller in the 2008 film Burn After Reading.

Allow me to introduce the "League of Morons"....

George Clooney stars as the paranoid moron Harry, a professional womanizer always trying to "fit a run in." Frances McDormand is the insecure moron Linda, an athletic trainer whose primary focus in life is plastic surgery and internet dating. Brad Pitt is the childish moron Chad, Linda's fun-loving, innocent, and naive friend and co-worker at the "Hardbodies" fitness center. John Malkovich is the angry moron Osborne Cox, a former CIA agent trying to write his "mem-wahs" (memoirs) and, finally, Tilda Swinton is the cold-hearted moron Katie, having an affair with Harry and trying to divorce Osborne. These people have much more in common with each other than they could possibly imagine and their lives intertwine to produce weighty, funny, madcap, and unexpected outcomes.

Burn After Reading is a very different yet, oxymoronically, a very characteristic Coen Brothers film. The film is shot as a serious espionage thriller; only none of the main characters have a clue. The story is very humor-oriented but a lot of darkness leaks in. Of course, the Coens form Burn After Reading so that it can flawlessly go from funny to tragic in the blink of an eye.

New to the Coen Brothers family is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (lighting up such films as Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Children Of Men (2006)). The collaborative look that the Coens and Lubezki create for Burn After Reading does not quite match up to the past fifteen years of the Coens and the master of light and color Roger Deakins but it certainly is great, surrounding its all-too-amusing content with an all-to-serious look.

The star-studded cast could not have been better. As is the same with every one of his Coen-made films, George Clooney is absolutely hilarious and is incredibly fun to watch in this the third of the Coen/Clooney collaborations. However, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand especially impress in their roles as Chad and Linda, respectively;  Pitt gives one of his finest efforts to date with a very funny and wild yet not particularly over-the-top portrayal of a character that he has never come close to playing before and McDormand is extremely quirky while being entirely believable and sympathetic (albeit only to a certain extent). But one cannot go wrong with any of the rich and recognizable cast members since each actor performs at his or her best throughout Burn After Reading.

Completing what the Coen Brothers have named "The Idiot Trilogy," including their other films featuring clueless George Clooney characters O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Burn After Reading is a very funny, unique, and satisfying film - a welcomed piece of the Coen Brothers' body of work.

CBC Rating: 9/10