The Proposition review

            Westerns are meant to be brutal to an extent. They are, after all, films about the wild and the untamed, so it makes sense for the characters to act this way. The Proposition truly is a violently brutal film, but what makes it the best western I have seen in years is the fact that the filmmakers know how to show these despicable acts in the wild lands that they take place without trying to use the violence to entertain. As soon as violence becomes a form of entertainment in a film, it simply becomes an exploitation piece, and then the viewers are brought down to an uncivilized level that a true western shows as a cause for the violence in the first place. The Proposition carefully balances incredible beauty of the landscape with minimal violence, so that the message makes it to the end of the film far stronger than it might have if entertainment had been the only reason for making it.

            The Proposition takes place in the lawless land of the 1880s Australian outback, where a group of renegade Irish brothers are wanted for the rape and murder of an innocent pregnant woman. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) has set out to civilize the outback by any means rather than the best means, so when he gets a hold of Charlie and Mikey Burns, the younger two of the three brothers, he makes a proposition to Charlie (Guy Pearce). He tells Charlie that he will kill Mikey if Arthur, the oldest brother and brutal ring leader of the clan, is not dead within nine days. Charlie sets out on the impossible mission to kill one brother, who is quite simply insane as well as an experienced killer, in order to save his younger innocent brother.

            At first it seems as though Captain Stanley is the obvious villain of the story, unafraid to pistol whip Mikey just to get the attention of his older brother, but soon after we see a different side of him and are forced to change our opinion of who he is. First impressions are even more important in film, and our first impression of Captain Stanley is awful, but he spends the rest of the film working hard to make things right, just as Charlie is forced to as well. The real villains in the film are not Charlie or Stanley, but the two extreme sides that they fall in between.

            Nick Cave’s haunting score fits perfectly into the script he wrote as well, most often played during sunsets, which there seem to be an abundance of in the film. Nearly the entire film seems to be shot during the magic hour, providing some fantastic cinematography that set the mood for a film which feels as if it could take place on another planet. Although the moments in which our “hero” is silhouetted and raises his gun to the sky with the setting sun behind him are quite beautiful, they also dance dangerously close to being self indulgent. Still, they allow for a nice break in between the more brutal points of the film.

            Many would say that the western is a dead genre, and the fact that Hollywood has commercialized the west would be a good argument for this, but I still love a good western, as rare as they are. This is what westerns were meant to be. The setting itself is a character, wild and unmanageable. The reason we don’t enjoy traditional westerns as much anymore is because what was once considered untamable has been tamed in the United States. The setting in The Proposition may not be traditional to westerns, but it is also far better than any attempts in years. It has all of the elements of a great western, but more importantly, it has the heart and soul of a western.


The Break-Up review

            Audiences going to see The Break-Up for a Vince Vaughn movie will be pleased. Vaughn is allowed a large amount of room to improvise dialogue at fast speeds in several scenes. Audiences going to see The Break-Up because they want a romantic comedy will also be pleased. The Break-Up doesn’t include any of the rude or crude humor which usually goes hand-in-hand with a Vince Vaughn movie. In fact, this film will please both sides, although some of the untraditional styles in the film may be difficult for some. It was the same problem that another Universal romantic comedy had this year. Audiences don’t know what to expect when humor is layered thickly with drama, but Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston put such a charismatic cover on the film that it actually works.

            The Break-Up is about an unlikely Chicago couple that is far too familiar too many couples across the world. Gary (Vaughn) doesn’t quite want to grow up, but he manages to charm Brooke (Aniston) into dating him and subsequently moving into a condo with him. After he refuses to change and she refuses to love him the way he is, they break up, but neither want to leave the condo. The humor of them living together in the same apartment after breaking up is obvious, but a great deal of realism comes with it. There are the obvious jokes with dates arriving at the apartment while the ex is at home, but there are also scenes that sound as if they were recorded straight out of life.

            The gossip was thick when news came that Jennifer Aniston was doing a film called The Break-Up just after her divorce, and then rumors continued when she began a relationship with the co-star, Vince Vaughn. Vaughn also happened to be the one that sought out to cast Aniston in the role. He admitted to having her in mind when he began the project. So what does all of this mean in terms of the film? Jennifer Aniston gives a remarkably honest performance, seeming to understand who her character was. It is a very truthful film in every sense, so it is only fitting that her performance should be as well. It is very probable that she had a great deal to draw from while getting into this character, but that should be admired. Any other type of artist that puts a great deal of themselves into their work is seen as a brave person, even if the art is bad. Why shouldn’t it be the same for film?

            One of the things that makes The Break-Up so great is the supporting cast. The filmmakers seemed to understand that the dramatic scenes might scare the audience off too quickly, so there are many scenes in which random supporting characters are allowed to lighten the mood temporarily. From random outbursts of song to Jon Favreau offering to have somebody killed, there are countless scenes of great distractions. This choppy structure which bounces back and forth from comedy to drama may turn away more traditional audiences, but there are rewards to be found for those who have patience.

The Bank Job review

The Bank Job isn’t a bad film as much as it is an easily forgettable film, often a far worse label. Average is a cursed rating for a film if there is nothing within the content of the decent film to make it stay in the memory. The result is a mildly entertaining experience that is soon left behind like a fast food meal eaten out of convenience rather than enjoyment. In the history of film this has proven true time and time again. We remember the good and we remember the bad. If an average film is like a fast-food meal, a bad film can be like food poisoning, and an evening spent gripping a toilet bowl is not easily forgotten. This is why I can still recall Caligula, Gigli and dozens of other infamous films from the past, but trying to remember The Bank Job, which I have just seen, seems like a task worth less than the effort it takes.

The largest problem with The Bank Job can’t be helped, because it digs down to the very root of what the film is. The Bank Job is based on a true story. This is often thought to ensure riveted audiences, as if the knowledge that what is being seen actually happened is enough to make an otherwise slow moving crime caper seem that much more exciting. The actual premise of the film seems promisingly based on the mysterious 1971 Lloyds Bank robbery, which was covered by the press shortly until high government officials suddenly ceased all press coverage. Rumors leaked that the vault broken into had contained photos of the Queen’s sister in revealing and compromising positions. It was also said that a powerful drug dealer and Black Power leader, named Michael X after the American Malcolm X, was the one holding these photos and The Bank Job has him using these photos as a way of remaining safe from the government. The Bank Job envisions what can only be hypothesized about, since Michael X was hanged in 1975 and his file to remain closed until 2054, but the scenario that screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Across the Universe) have come up with involves a conspiracy to incarcerate Michael X that needed to involve bank robbers.

Jason Statham stars as Terry Leather, the leader of a group of small time criminals offered the opportunity for the heist of a lifetime by an ex-flame, Martine Love (Saffron Burrows). Martine doesn’t give the reasons for the cleared path and inside information to her fellow bank robbers, so they think they are only robbing the vault for the cash, but soon after they have completed the theft they find that many unsavory characters held precious goods in this particular vault, and are willing to do anything to ensure that their secrets remain buried.

Like most crime capers, The Bank Job is ultimately broken down into is conflict and resolution, and The Bank Job is so infuriatingly void of conflict that the resolution soon becomes expected and hardly earned. All but one of the bank robbers seem to receive a free ride due to fortunate circumstances that only one of them was aware of when they started, and the oblivious good luck of the amateur criminals leaves little at stake within the story. Even when the situation turns sour for one of the robbers, it is difficult to feel what is at stake with these characters. Hardly any time is spent fleshing the thieves out as real people, flawed or otherwise. More time is spent obsessing over the true absurdity of the situation than is ever spent distinguishing who the people involved were. The facts take focus while the characters quickly fall into the background, and for that reason nothing feels at stake when they are in danger because we don’t necessarily care about them, nor are we encouraged to.

Even when the film manages to create some conflict, however minimal it may be, these situations are wasted by direct filmmaking that is void of suspense or mystery. Even though all but one of the thieves are oblivious to the secrets held in the vault, the audience is given this information extremely early on. We are also witness to all sides of the crime as it is being executed. We are permitted to follow the crooks into the vault, but are also given the point-of-view from the lookout as well, so even when the walky-talky is dropped and communication ceases between the two, the audience still sees everything. Even the attempts from the police to track down which bank is being robbed are shown, so that we know what the robbers only find out much later. By giving the audience every bit of information we may have all sides to the true story the film is based on, but the execution of this is far too concerned with showing everything rather than selectively showing the angles that might have made the film more suspenseful.

The Bank Job is directed by Roger Donaldson, who has proved extremely capable of portraying facts in the past with his riveting Thirteen Days, the film about the details involving the Cuban Missile Crisis, but The Bank Job seems to fall into the much wider category of his forgettable films such as Cocktail (1988) and Dante’s Peak (1997). Even Donaldson’s last film The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) benefited from the simple telling of a true story, but his filmmaking once again seems uneven with the speculation involved in The Bank Job. Perhaps he is simply unable to adapt to the uncommitted writing from Clement and La Frenais, but The Bank Job doesn’t seem able to decide what the film should focus on, and as a result it shows everything and nothing at all.

Standing Still review

            There is somewhat of a gap in the world of film, and it happens from the age of about 21 to 28. All of the younger actors that played high school roles on television or in film eventually get old enough that they cannot convincingly play that age anymore. After that there are very few roles until the actor is old enough to play late twenties without audiences remembering them in their youthful roles. Standing Still is an amazingly large amount of these actors, most trying adult roles out for the first time. At times it seems more like the life that the actors would have in their late twenties rather than the average person, but it takes place in Los Angeles and we are meant to believe that everyone that grows up in Hollywood becomes rich and famous.

            Elise (Amy Adams) and Michael (Adam Garcia) are the perfect couple who have been dating since college. They are lucky enough to have a beautiful house, an upcoming wedding, and a crew of close friends, all coming into Los Angeles for the weekend celebration. As they each arrive at the house, the reunions quickly turn into awkward meetings that bring up both sweet and painful memories. Rich (Aaron Stanford) and Samantha (Melissa Sagemiller) are the best man and maid of honor who are also considering marriage. Lana (Mena Suvari) is a neurotic actress with an unstable love life.

When all the men she's ever slept with, the forlorn Pockets (Jon Abrahams), children's show host Donovan (Ethan Embry), and drunken actor Simon (James Van Der Beek), all show up for the wedding, chaos ensues. Rounding out the group are Quentin (Colin Hanks), a fast-talking agent who falls hard for the bride's sister (Marnette Patterson), Jennifer (Lauren German), the bride's former roommate with a secret, Franklin (Roger Avary), the definition of a wacky Hollywood director, and Jonathan (Xander Berkeley), the groom's long lost father battling addiction, attempting to reenter his son's life.

            Essentially it is half comedy of errors and half sentimental melodrama, and although it isn’t entirely profound, it is a fun journey. I found myself entertained, if only because all of the actors are extremely talented and charismatic. Every one of these actors seem to bring their own unique quality to the film, but each of them have something that allows them to stand out. This makes for interesting scene after interesting scene, simply because of good acting. James Van Der Beek is especially enthralling in a role that is quite different than Dawson’s Creek, or any other nice guy character he has played. Jon Abrahams may have one of the saddest faces in Hollywood, and he is picture perfect for Pockets, the loneliest guy in the film.

            There is no real substance to the film, and for that reason it isn’t surprising that critics are not too fond of it, but audiences may love it. It is fun and energetic without ever being completely dull. The humor is slightly sophomoric at times, but nothing too intense. Mostly it is just good clean fun in a candy coated shell.

Smokin’ Aces review

Joe Carnahan made his name with the realistic cop drama Narc, which opens with a frenetic foot chase that is one of the most engaging and riveting chases captured on film. This combination of intense action mixed with realistic drama worked great on the small scale of Narc, but Carnahan tries to do too much at once with his larger budget in Smokin’ Aces. The realistic cop drama is kept, but focus is allowed to drift in many other directions, occasionally violent and strange. This isn’t to say that there aren’t many things to admire about Aces, but many of these strong points seem to stem from many other similar films, only with more weak points than the films it copies had.

There is a wealth of actors scattering the hectic plot of Aces, and much like True Romance, there is no guaranteeing that they will all survive. This also doesn’t mean that everyone will be dead by the end of the film, because Aces is remarkably forgiving and allows far more survivals than you might expect from the onslaught of violence seen in the highly misleading trailer. There are a few scenes of violence that seems ridiculously over-the-top in order to satisfy the calculated scenes of internal pain coming from Jeremy Piven’s guilt-ridden magician and Ryan Reynold’s morally coached detective. Many of the other actors are given lighter roles that test their comedic ability more. Jason Bateman is as good as he has ever been as a pathetic and lonely lawyer with low self-esteem and who is without pants the entire film. Ben Affleck uses his best accent for a role with a great deal of dialogue in the extensive set-up for an extremely basic premise.

Try as he might Carnahan is unable to balance between serious cop/gangster drama and a slew of Tarantino-esque scenes which take a short detour from anything relevant. A collection of these scenes are great in and of themselves but they tend to bog down the fluid action scenes. When the action occurs, it is brutal and well shot, but the brilliance comes from the way the film builds. There is a lengthy establishing sequence and a lead up to an elevator sequence in which two separate elevators contain the beginnings of a gunfight, and as the suspense build up there is a feeling of anticipation which feels as though the conclusion will be spectacular. Unfortunately the build up is far better than the conclusion, which falls flat and answers away all of the questions with words rather than gunplay, leaving a film which was almost great.

Ratatouille review

            There are several long-time traditions, or tendencies, of vintage or classic Disney animation features in the latest Pixar film. Whether this is a sign of Pixar’s submission to the overshadowing animation forefather or pure coincidence is all but irrelevant. What is important in viewing Ratatouille is the way these familiar themes, archetypes and plot devices are made unique. These are the qualities that each of the films of Disney’s vintage period used to inhabit easily, and something that was missing from animation prior to the arrival of Pixar. Ratatouille isn’t the first attempt of the young studio to take on a storyline more reminiscent of the old Disney tradition of basing the film around a distinct location and a particular animal family (Finding Nemo), nor is it the first animated film under Disney’s name to take place in the sparkling world of Paris, France (The Aristocats), but the film still manages to feel distinctly original.

             This isn’t even the first time that Disney has used rats, although it is certainly original in the fact that these rats are given remarkable detail and also happen to be dealt with in most inappropriate location of a restaurant kitchen. When we first join our protagonist rat, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), he is fleeing a small country house clutching a cook book, proving a perfect visual representation of what the entire film will be about. Remy is a slightly lonely rat even amongst his family of rats as the much appreciated food inspector, given his ability to smell the slight nuances in food that may contain rat poison, mostly because his deeper appreciation for food is not shared by anyone surrounding him. When the incident of the opening scene occurs and Remy is forced to escape through the sewers he finds himself separated from the rest of the rats, and once washed into Paris he finds the restaurant once owned by the author of his beloved cookbook, Gusteau, a man who had believed that anybody had the ability to cook. Remy decides that this is his fate, and he is helped along when a collaboration becomes possible between the rat and a lowly kitchen assistant named Linguini (Lou Romano), hired only because of his apparent relation to the late Gusteau.

            The kitchen that Remy has stumbled into is a marvelous new world to him, masterfully animated with realistic accuracy that strives to make the environment breathe a life of its own, with an energy and dangerous life of its own. Even though the kitchen is a collective group of individuals, including Horst (Will Arnett) a man who spent time in prison for whatever imaginative story he decides to tell from day to day and Colette (Janeane Garofalo with one of the most indulgent French accents of the film) as the brash lone female in the kitchen and Linguini’s inevitable pair in romance, the film is really about the relationship Remy and Linguini form in each attempting to navigate through this intimidating new world.

            There is no denying the spectacular advances in animation while watching Ratatouille, especially in comparison to the 1970 Disney film which also took place in Paris, The Aristocats. Both depict the iconic images of Paris, although the Paris of Ratatouille seems to understand the magic of animation, as it sparkles with more quaint beauty than it ever could in real life. The kitchen atmosphere also offers an assortment of animation opportunities, whether the detail in the food or the glimmer in the tools, even down to the hairs on the rat’s head, but the subtle and wise decision that Ratatouille makes is to end the realism where humans are concerned. Time after time animation with realistically depicted humans has done nothing more than disturb and turn-off audiences, whereas ratatouille happily turns the characters into caricatures with surprisingly rodent-like features. Ears that stick out and long noses are common on the faces of many characters, including Linguini, but the most rat-like behavior belongs to the restaurant’s new chef, Skinner (Ian Holm), a man whose small stature requires him to scurry up a small ladder in the same way Remy scurries around the kitchen on available items.

Night Watch review

            Russian film history was never an area covered in the classes I took in school, and as I think back to try and remember films from Russia which have impacted me, I couldn’t even fill one fist with titles. For years films weren’t made in Russia, and now that they are being made, we hardly hear about it, but Night Watch is about to change all of that. Night Watch has already broken records all over the world, and can now be seen in The United States. Upon its release in Russia in 2004, Night Watch surpassed even Spider-Man 2 and Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King in box office, and this came from a film which only cost four million to make. It’s an incredible achievement, and I haven’t even begun to review the film yet.

             Night Watch takes place in modern Moscow, but it could take place in any city. It is a story about good and evil, quite literally. For over 1000 years the world has been secretly policed by other beings, who in the technical terms are actually vampires. These “Others” make a choice upon realizing they are different. They either choose to be light or dark, but both side spends its time watching the other to make sure the rules are being followed, and humans are allowed to make their own decisions toward good or evil. The light others spend their nights watching the dark others.

            This is the first in a trilogy of fantasy action films, and it takes its time to slowly allow all of the rules in this new world to come to the surface on their own through natural conversation. This means that at least the first half of the film is spent trying to understand the world we are being brought into. This makes it difficult to enjoy, but it also gives a certain silent credibility to the material as well. It is also very apparent that things have purposefully started out slow in this first film, but that they will build in the next two films. While The Matrix trilogy suffered because there was nowhere to go after the first film, this series has learned from those mistakes.

            The style of the film is so scattered and somewhat nauseating, I longed for a simple steady shot. There really is nothing simple about Night Watch. Even the subtitles are so creative that I can’t help but wonder what entertained the Russian audience during moments of lull in the action. At times the visuals are a bit more than my brain could happily accept, and by the end of the film my head hurt slightly, but I was also very involved in the story. Even with my head hurting I would have sat back down and watched Day Watch if it were available, because that is how successful Night Watch was at getting me interested.

Knocked Up review

            Writer Mike White joins Judd Apatow on a commentary track for an episode of Freaks and Geeks that he wrote and he talks about his experience on Dawson’s Creek prior to writing that episode. Despite the lack of viewer dedication which led to the cancellation of one of the greatest shows to air on television, Freaks and Geeks did receive a small amount of attention for the realistic casting of the show. The characters all look their age on the show, because it is a show based more than anything else on real people and real emotions. This seems to be Apatow’s stamp, as each project his has taken on as a writer and director has as much heart as humor. The characters are so real that there is no need for the expected plot twists. While many comedies rely on a villain, or at least some sort of competition for the romantic lead, each of Apatow’s films manage to make the protagonist his own worst enemy, and yet just as likable despite if not because of their flaws. Even though the writing is allowed much more vulgarity and adult humor, Knocked Up as well as The 40-Year-Old Virgin manage to maintain the same heart which was born in his television creations.

            Knocked Up begins with a brilliant cross-cutting sequence showing the extremely different lifestyles of the two romantic leads. While Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) has a responsible life living with her sister and working at a successful career as an up-and-coming entertainment journalist Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is a Canadian living illegally in the United States attempting to start a movie nudity website and living with his slacker pot-smoking friends. After a chance encounter the two of them meet in a bar and end up having a one-night stand. Although Ben is cheerful as ever the next morning it is obvious that Allison wants to forget the incident ever happened, which is made more difficult when she becomes pregnant. They both decide to do the responsible thing and try and have the baby together but it quickly becomes obvious that their lifestyles are not the same and the only role models they have are Allison’s sister Debbie and her brother-in-law Pete, played by fantastic scene stealing actors Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. The problem is that Debbie and Pete are having problems growing up as well, making in them poor examples in many situations.  

            Seth Rogan is one of the few actors who has been involved in nearly every production Apatow has been involved in and he was even the first choice for the Undeclared lead, but this is the first chance that he has been given to carry a film. It worked out well for Steve Carrell, who has a fantastically awkward cameo in Knocked Up as well, and I predict that this film does wonders for Rogan’s career. Many other cast members from past productions also pop up, all perfectly resembling many people I know and love in real life, but also familiar in the sense that I have watched Freaks and Geeks so many times that no amount of facial hair and growth is enough for me not to recognize the cast and feel as though there is some justice in Apatow finally finding a place in which he can be appreciated. While the language fitting an R-rated film may help to bring audiences in, Knocked Up is likely to carry much more weight with it than an unsuspecting audience member might anticipate. The rating allows for mass quantities of weed to be smoked during the course of the film, but the focus isn’t on being vulgar or disgusting for the rating. Instead the writing just comes off as real people who are doing and saying what they would be saying in life, with no thought to a rating at all. Isn’t this the way all films should be made?

            As much as can praise the dialogue in this film as well as any other script that Apatow has ever written, I am also more aware of the shortcomings with each additional project. It must have been difficult wrapping up Freaks and Geeks as quickly as possible, and Undeclared was canceled in a hurry as well, so it is no wonder that Knocked Up seems in a hurry to reach the resolution after backing into somewhat of a corner. Fortunately in resolving everything quickly we manage to skip many of the clichés of romantic comedies, but it also leaves the film feeling as though it patches everything slightly suddenly. The 40-Year-Old Virgin has the same problem, which is resolved by an absurd musical number at the end, a choice which might have given the audience to let the resolution settle a bit more in Knocked Up. Still, even with these “flaws” I will eagerly anticipate each film which comes even close to this caliber and praise Judd Apatow as one of the most insightful and heartfelt writer/directors working in Hollywood.   

Jesus Camp review

From the very first scene we are brought into a studio where a radio show is being broadcast and a radio personality expresses his frustration with George Bush and the war. The radio show serves as a counter to the footage of an Evangelical camp. As obvious as this may be, there are still some harrowing images when it comes to the children in the film. When asked if they believe that God can do anything there is a mother who forcibly raises her children’s hands. The children are encouraged to be the ones to make change happen in the world, but as positive as the message may be, there are times when it feels as though their hands are being forced by the adults who have strong beliefs. In open scene a parent sits down with her child and they study textbooks which sit next to a copy of The Lord of the Rings, against the political argument of global warming. Science doesn’t mean anything because they have faith.

We are told in one scene that Muslims are trained by the age of five to fast, which is meant to make us feel that this extreme training of faith for Christians is justifiable. Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s minister, encourages this kind of dedication in children. She expects the children to fast, to pray, and even to speak in tongues. These children are soldiers in a war that needs training, so Becky runs a summer camp for Evangelical kids. What is somewhat disturbing is the way that Becky brags about the speed in which she can enter a playground and evangelize to a child until he is able to hear the voice of God and see visions. The importance she puts upon herself in the equation as well as the speed with which she claims to make children open to God without the background to the religion at all necessary is more than disturbing at times. Jesus Camp is all about how open children are and what they can do for Christianity, and that is an amazing sight which is proven true, but the adults made me equally wary. 

At the same time that the methods can be unsettling, especially for those who aren’t used to the in-your-face religious experiences shown, the point comes across rather strong. One third of the world’s population is made up of children under fifteen and these kids are our future. As sure as there are temptations directed at children from a young age, there should be the opportunity for something more positive as well. The question put to the viewer is whether of not the methods Becky uses are the right ones.

The unfortunate choice to use such extreme viewpoints makes the film more interesting, but it is likely to turn audiences away from any positive elements within the film. While a documentary like Rize showed a group of kids who chose to do something positive in their life through dance, with many also finding that it brought them closer to God and in stronger faith, Jesus Camp doesn’t carry the same punch. These kids don’t seem to be in the real world. They are in an Evangelical bubble, mostly home schooled and never given the opportunity to come to conclusions about the world on their own. There are vacuums for the information given to them, but nothing more than what the parents see as appropriate.

Although there are some sketchy moments that make Evangelicals look like a national threat as well as others where extreme views on the other side can become creepy, the kids fall in safe ground. Everyone will find themselves starting to care about these kids, who all have a great heart. Where they are old enough to really know what they believe is an argument I don’t want to start, but they certainly aren’t old enough to be cynical. Everything they do sincerely seems to come out of their hearts and they become the inspiration of the film.

Dreamgirls DVD review

In the golden age of Hollywood musicals there were several different ways to integrate the music, and often dance, into the film. The easiest were the backstage musicals, like 42 Street or Singin’ in the Rain, where the music and dance come from the actual production of a musical show, whether on stage or screen. The numbers often come from these productions, and often have little to do with the story in the film, like Judy Garland and Fred Astaire’s bum routine in Easter Parade. The other type of musicals have characters who aren’t connected to entertaining but would still have spontaneous musical numbers which would often help move the story along. Although there always seem to be a few musicals coming out around award season, they mostly conform to the backstage musical, or break out of any realistic portrayal of life and become a postmodern pastiche of a musical. This isn’t always a bad thing, such as was the case with the success of the fantastical Moulin Rouge, but Dreamgirls plays soft between both worlds. This does allow for much more emphasis on the music because of the subtleness in the rest of the film, but all that remains after watching the film is a bad taste of melodrama which is inches away from being R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet at times.

Grammy winner Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose play a trio of singers with no money, just trying to make it when they are discovered by a car salesman and entrepreneur, Curtis (Jamie Foxx), in this film based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit. Soon the girls begin to have success, but the ego of Effie (Hudson) starts to get in the way when she is asked to step into back-up singing instead of lead. The reasoning is that Deena (Knowles) has a much easier face for a lead singer, and it works without Effie, who is kicked out after making a scene in the beginning of their career. Effie is quickly replaced and the girls gain success again, only there are many more issues in the future when Curtis puts business before friendships.

Although the melodrama of the story of three female singers as they rise to fame and lose friendships along the way is nothing incredibly special, and may have even been really bad if it weren’t for the music and some great performances. Eddie Murphy has a great comeback with this role, a role which he seems born to play and has a great time doing it as well. Unfortunately he followed up his success with Norbit, but at least he had a brief comeback. Jamie Foxx is also good, as he usually is, but his talent seems somewhat wasted on the one character who seems to grow more and more one-dimensional as the film wears on.

The two-disc “Showstopper Edition” comes with plenty of additional special features, most noteworthy being the full length documentary, “Building the Dream” on the second disc. Disc one has twelve extended musical numbers, including a Jennifer Hudson performance, which seems to be the performance everyone is latching onto. There is also a Beyonce music video on disc one. As well as a full documentary, disc two has auditions and screen tests, photo galleries, technical featurettes and a half dozen other tidbits.   

Diggers review

            Diggers is another small town indi-film with a group of slacker males, something which has been seen far too much in the recent history. Independent films are beginning to become more of a moody genre than anything else, and Diggers follows in this tradition, but it is still remarkably entertaining even if there isn’t much fresh about it and it doesn’t seem too hard to be trying anything original. A fine ensemble piece about a group of young men who are well on their way to becoming the cranky old clam diggers that their fathers were until a takeover by a large clamming corporation cuts down on the water they have to dig in.

            Each of the clam diggers is handling the overtaking of their waters by a large company differently. Whether selling drugs on the side to make ends meet, dying, or just acting out rage all day, they are all adjusting, some better than others. It is a sort of mourning as their livelihood and way of life slowly dies. Interestingly enough, although Hunt (Paul Rudd) is literally mourning after his father who was also a clam digger and dies while working one day, he seems to be adjusting to all of the changes with less extreme behavior than any of his friends. Eventually it begins to build inside of him, and even as he prone to the fits of anger or depression that seem expected, the tension begins to show in his face. Rudd has long been able to blend comedic timing into his dramatic acting and dedication to his comedic roles, making each performance believably real, but Diggers is a film seemingly made to show Rudd’s subtle and restrained acting, which has profoundly remarkable moments which could easily be missed.

Jack (Ron Eldard) is a womanizer, using this as his way to cope with the troubles in his job, until he begins dating Hunt’s sister, Gina (Maura Tierney). This is a ticking time bomb throughout most of the film, but the final confrontation when Hunt discovers this secret is far more comical than is expected from most of the film. Ken Marino is fantastic as the loud-mouthed and foul tempered father of numerous kids and more on the way. He seems to be taking the cuts on money the hardest as he has the most to lose, as his wife (Sarah Paulson) never lets him forget. Their relationship is always full of heightened conversations and emotions, whether full of love or anger they are a fascinating pair. Their issues are about money, but one gets the impression that they might fight even if there was nothing to fight about.

Although abstaining from a completely traditional Hollywood ending, Diggers is a soft independent film, not too far from predictable, but incredibly pleasant to watch just the same. There are many reasons why the film is unoriginal, or at least unimpressive, but I liked all of the actors in the film and had a great time watching it. Sometimes films don’t need to be great to be what we want to watch.

Dead Man’s Shoes review

Dead Man’s Shoes is a balls out brutal film. It doesn’t apologize for the horrors that it shows, and that is the point. The vigilante style calls for a fearless hero, and Paddy Considine seems up to the task. The only problem is that sometimes logic is sacrificed in order to make the violent actions seem more insane. What is interesting is the latest trend of using peaceful music in extremely violent films. The Proposition featured beautiful music by Nick Cave that usually played over a sunset, right before a deadly fight. Dead Man’s Shoes has the same surreal experience peppered in between scenes of violence.

Richard’s brother Anthony is mentally handicapped, which a group of drug dealers and assorted sleazy characters use for their own pleasure and amusement. When Richard finds out that they have been abusing him, he sets out to make things right. As an initial act of revenge, Richard steals and humiliates each of them, almost as if he is giving them advanced warning of what is to come. When asked if it was him, Richard simply admits it. He openly tells them that he will hit each and every one of them unless they can get to him first. He brags that he has them in the palm of his hand so convincingly that it is difficult not to be impressed with his vigilante justice. Richard is an ex-soldier, and he is willing to use his Rambo-like skills to get his revenge.

The quality of the film is very rough. The camera work is all over the place and it is grainy and low quality through the whole film, almost where it seems like a documentary at times. At the same time there are a few areas that work very well. Some of it is just great editing while other parts seem intentional by the director. I suppose that it is possible that the grainy quality is somewhat stylized, such as the black and white scenes that are flashbacks, but these tricks are too old, and now they just seem like lazy storytelling.

Paddy Considine comes into the role with a vengeance, which would make sense considering he wrote the role for himself. Shane Meadows directs all of the rest of the actors into a frenzy, which makes Considine seem even more calm. The only problem is that from the very beginning we know that there will be no happy ending for our jaded hero, so the journey becomes somewhat bittersweet towards the end. Even as revenge is taken, the heart of the film begins to seep away. If the only reason for the character to live in the film is for revenge, what is left when he is all done?

Curious George review

Directed by: Mathew O’Callaghan
Screenplay by: Ken Kaufman
Cast: Will Ferrell, Dick Van Dyke, Drew Barrymore, David Cross, Eugene Levy

            The brilliance behind a book adaptation which is also a cartoon is genius. The illustrations in the book are drawn, so it only makes sense that the most accurate way to translate it to film would be to use the medium which allows for this to stay the same. The animation in Curious George seems to go out of its way to look as much like the books as possible, even when that means the animation is not cutting edge. There are no jaw-dropping visuals in Curious George, and yet it still manages to put me in a state of amazement.

            Adapted from Margret and H.A. Rey’s classic children’s books, Curious George follows the adventures of the Man in the Yellow Hat, and his small monkey friend, George. The film attempts to apply somewhat of a storyline within these adventures, by adding a villain and an ultimate goal for the Man in the Yellow Hat, who is voiced by Will Ferrell. The Man in the Yellow Hat works at a museum, but it is in danger of being closed down. In order to save the museum so it won’t be turned into a parking lot by a mogul voiced by David Cross, he travels into the jungle to find a giant ancient relic. He comes back with a tiny relic, but along the way he also found himself a pet monkey. When George finds himself in the big city, he discovers that there are plenty of discoveries to be made.

            What makes George such a delightful character is the fact that he is not at all mischievous. He is simply curious, and although this may get him into all sorts of trouble, each turn is just another discovery for him, and he remains happy no matter what. Luckily this cheerful character never speaks and ruins the magic, but he is illustrated to have all sorts of great expressions to help us follow his journey.

            The film often takes short detours for George to be curious, and during these moments the film bounces along cheerfully to the melodic tunes of Jack Johnson. There are entire sequences with no dialogue, and the music starts up. These moments made the film for me. It wasn’t about the plot, just like there was no real plot in the books. It was simply about a cheerful little monkey having adventures, and the music fits so well that the film becomes unbelievably joyful. It is perhaps the most cheerful film that I have ever seen.

            Ferrell has his own share of fun improvising lines as the Man in the Yellow Hat, but it never overpowers the magic of the film. The simple animation focuses more on light than anything else, and each scene is simply beautiful, while also very practical. As a fan of the books, I recognized each situation, and also missed the ones which were left out. I can only hope that there is room to make another film. That is one sequel that I would truly look forward to watching.

Crank review

            From the very first scene of Crank we are forced into a mind altering world of drugs, and for the rest of the film our hero will use drugs from moment to moment, finding that they are often all that is keeping him alive. The other things that help to keep him alive are sex and violence, and they are used in graphic excess as is the case with the drugs. The irony of these actions is that he doesn’t do them for the pleasure they might bring another person, but simply to stay alive. It occurred to me about halfway through the film that the filmmakers often seemed to go out of their way to put our hero in a whirlwind of unsavory and immoral situations that make Grand Theft Auto seem respectful towards humanity, but there are postmodern hints that the filmmakers know exactly what they are doing. As much as I tried to figure it out for myself, I found myself going in circles.

            Crank is so over-the-top with the sexist, racist and exploitative behavior, it would be easy to quickly dismiss it as a piece of garbage that should be kept from our youth at all costs. Strangely enough, however, the filmmakers are making a comment on all of these acts, whether they realize it or not. The concept alone is absurdly daring in its ridiculousness. A high-level mob hit-man wakes to find that he has been injected with a poison which will slowly lower his heart rate until he dies. His only chance for survival is the hopes that he can keep his adrenaline up, using drugs, using women and destroying life all around him in the process. We laugh because he is irritated by the fact that his girlfriend (Amy Smart) doesn’t have a cell phone, something which is socially appalling in this day and age, even to a man who kills people for a living. As we laugh at such a small thing, there is hardly a flinch as our “hero” disarms and taunts a police officer before taking his motorcycle. As extreme as the filmmakers try to be in the absurd and unforgivable actions onscreen, most of them will be accepted easily, losing the point of the film completely.

            Nearly all of Crank can be tied to some form of entertainment or piece of pop culture which has changed the way we see the world. From the news coverage of a horrific gunfight at the end of the film to the voyeuristic way a couple of predictably dressed sex symbols in the form of Asian schoolgirls witness a public sexual attempt to raise adrenaline, Crank seems to be winking at the audience with each offensive scene, almost expecting that as long as there is a postmodern element all else will be forgiven. This might have worked for better filmmakers, such as Tarantino, but part of the problem with the statement about the sad state our pop culture has turned to is placing this statement in a genre which relies on all of these elements. Instead of making a point, Crank simply feeds the hungry audience exactly what it came to see.

              The subtle hints scattered throughout the film are exactly that. They are far too subtle for a film which has no need for any subtlety. A particularly strong image is of one of the many scantily clad women in the film encased in a plastic bubble and displayed on rooftop while powerful men meet. Perhaps it was coincidence, but although there were several women in these display cases, the one that seems to be favored looks remarkably similar to Britney Spears. Once the shooting begins these human trophies are trapped in their own surroundings, just as it seems that Spears will continue to be trapped in her display case that has countless people shooting at her each day as well, only with film rather than bullets. This is just one of many subtle hints thrown in, each making a valid point, but each also sadly lost amidst poor direction and a disorientating and flashy style which is bound to have audiences either appalled or cheering the violence rather than seeing the message behind it. What could have been a strong statement against the direction our popular art takes in fulfilling the male fantasy (in one scene as Amy Smart is orally pleasing a driving Statham as he is pursued by violent killers, she stops long enough to gasp, “You’re so big), instead it just feeds more of the same junk into the system.

13 Tzameti review

            When I first watched the trailer for 13 Tzameti I had visions of Deer Hunter going through my head. I assumed that a film filled with games of group Russian roulette would be thrilling and unbelievably suspenseful. What I found is that a film needs far more than a thrilling concept to be suspenseful. Although there are many scenes of drawn out tension, there is nothing at stake. Although the film takes its time getting to the game, there is never any focus on specific characters in the film. Much of the film seems to be inching towards action, but by the time we get there all interest has been lost, and there is no concern for any of the characters. This is the biggest problem, because the only way Russian roulette is suspenseful is if we care about one of the men that could die. Since the filmmakers never take the time to make certain we are attached to what is going on before they pull the trigger, I hardly blinked when the gun fire finally did start.

            13 Tzameti is a French thriller about a young man (Georges Babluani) who gets caught up in a deadly game of greed and survival. When he overhears about a game of some sort that will make him rich, he manages to sneak his way in. To his surprise the game is a high stakes gambling event where rich men gamble on who will die and who will live when the thirteen men line up and hold a gun to another man’s head. When a light bulb in the middle of the room lights up, everyone shoots and hopes that the man behind them has no bullet in the chamber. The trick about the game is that even with a bullet in the chamber, speed plays an important factor. If the man two behind you shoots before the man with the gun to your head, and they both have bullets, it is a lucky round and a close escape.

            Had the film been more willing to invest creativity in the game, it may have been more fun to watch, but this is obviously an art film that doesn’t want to be dumbed down by explanations. Unfortunately, as smart as the film may be, there was never enough attention given towards making it interesting. All of the elements are available, but sadly they are mostly underplayed, and by the end of the film I was left wondering where the suspense went that had me hooked when I watched the trailer.

            The film is shot in an eerie black and white, but the visuals never seem to reach their full potential. There are a few wonderfully executed motion shots in the film, which add a level of suspense, but far too many of the scenes are lacking any visual excitement. This being the case, the black and white seems an irrelevant and unnecessary choice, except to show that the film is as visually bland as it is in every other aspect.

Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death review

Considering how many American films are sequels during the summer, including pre-shot trilogies which are filmed immediately following the success of the original, it is ironic that the first time Nicholas Winding Refn’s gritty drug film is seen in America it is being released in the full trilogy. The difference in this trilogy and the many sequels forced from successful American films is the fact that despite the nine years it took to make the three films, they all have the same feeling to them. There is no added or exaggerated violence just because the sequel needs to be larger. Instead Refn has the control and patience to allow the characters to control the script, not the audience. What results is a brilliant reworking of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in the modern Danish criminal underworld, with overlapping characters from each film.

            The final film in the Pusher trilogy follows restaurant owner Milo, who sells drugs out of his restaurant, and takes place in a single day. Milo is on his fifth day clean of drugs, but it is also his daughter Milena’s twenty-fifth birthday for which he has to make a feast, so the stress begins to pile up. To make matters worse, a shipment of ecstasy comes in instead of heroin. As Milo deals with his daughter’s birthday and a drug deal gone wrong, he finds himself in the pocket of some dangerous men, and has to find a way out. As with each Pusher film, the main character is a flawed human being, and this flaw is the downfall, as it was in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Milo is a cheap man, which is what gets him into trouble many times in the film, from buying cheap chicken that makes people sick to making bad business decisions, and in the end this gets him into trouble on this fateful day.          

            Pusher III seems to be making up for the slightly misogynistic tone of the first two Pusher films by making the strongest character Milo’s daughter, a woman who will not take no for an answer. She gets what she wants and many people seem to fear her far more than her father. The lead character, Milo, is also the most mature lead that the Pusher series has seen. Although each film in the series has a different lead, each with a fate somewhat unknown by the end of the film, the theme continues on to the next film. The series shows a natural progression in its themes. Pusher shows Frank abuse a woman until he sees his downfall. In Pusher II Tonny has an unbelievable bitterness towards women, but by the end of the film he has matured enough to have the fatherly instinct to save his child from harm. Pusher III shows Milo on the day of his daughter’s twenty-fifth birthday, and she has been made the center of his life, with the mother once again missing. Nearly every action Milo makes seems motivated by his fatherly instincts, and situations quickly become deadly because of it as well.

            The interesting thing about Milo in comparison to the past two Pusher protagonists is the fact that he doesn’t run. At the end of the first two Pusher film both Frank and Tonny are forced to run, but Milo never even considers it as an option with his daughter in his life. He is willing to grovel and do whatever is necessary until he gets himself into even more trouble. Even then, he calls up on a favor so that he can figure a solution out instead of running. The simple and eerily serene final scene shows a remarkable change from the frantic last minutes of the first two films. Milo is a criminal, just like the others, but he is also much more calculated and intelligent than the other two.

Pusher II: With Blood on my Hands review

Considering how many American films are sequels during the summer, including pre-shot trilogies which are filmed immediately following the success of the original, it is ironic that the first time Nicholas Winding Refn’s gritty drug film is seen in America it is being released in the full trilogy. The difference in this trilogy and the many sequels forced from successful American films is the fact that despite the nine years it took to make the three films, they all have the same feeling to them. There is no added or exaggerated violence just because the sequel needs to be larger. Instead Refn has the control and patience to allow the characters to control the script, not the audience. What results is a brilliant reworking of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in the modern Danish criminal underworld, with overlapping characters from each film. What enables Refn’s characters come to life is the actors, many of whom were once criminals themselves. This seems all-too-fitting for a reworking of Shakespeare.

            Pusher II follows Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), the business partner of Frank from the original Pusher film. Tonny has just been released from doing time in jail (the criminal equivalence for going to war), and he finds himself struggling to get on his fathers good side. His father is focused towards his younger son from another mother, who he is struggling to keep custody of, and his only attention given to Tonny is to insult him. Tonny is a screw-up as well as a drug addict, and when he gets caught in a drug deal gone wrong, he finds himself in the company of an even larger screw-up that owes a great deal of money.

            The women seem to take the most abuse in the sequel to the 1996 gritty drug film. While Pusher dealt very simply with debt that can get you killed, the sequel has a very different message. Debt alone doesn’t kill anybody in this film; there are far more emotional and personal reasons for attempted murder in this film. Numerous men attempt to kill, or have killed, the mother of their child. This image continuously appears throughout the film, but at the same time we are never allowed to see any mothers of grown characters. The mother of our hero is dead long before we join him, but we are there to witness the shocking news that his mother has been dead for a year. The statement may in fact be about the fathers attempting to kill off all the mothers in the story, and in the end the money plays a much smaller role than the emotions of the family do. There are endless layers to the story when examining the relationship between the three generations, even with one generation doing no more than crying.

            Pusher II may have seen eight years since the original Pusher film, but the style of the films look as though they were made at the same time. There is a remarkable amount of similarities in the film, including many of the characters, but the script is much bigger than the first one. The way in which the Pusher sequel grows is the most important. Instead of adding more action or violence (both of which the third film has an abundance of), Refn has added more to this script by giving it layers. Each scene seems intently examined before it was filmed, showing clear intentions of a great writer and director.

Pusher review

            Considering how many American films are sequels during the summer, including pre-shot trilogies which are filmed immediately following the success of the original, it is ironic that the first time Nicholas Winding Refn’s gritty drug film is seen in America it is being released in the full trilogy. The difference in this trilogy and the many sequels forced from successful American films is the fact that despite the nine years it took to make the three films, they all have the same feeling to them. There is no added or exaggerated violence just because the sequel needs to be larger. Instead Refn has the control and patience to allow the characters to control the script, not the audience. What results is a brilliant reworking of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in the modern Danish criminal underworld, with overlapping characters from each film.

            Pusher starts off the trilogy with Frank (Kim Bodnia), a small-time drug dealer in Copenhagen during a difficult week. When a drug deal goes wrong and Frank is left without the money or the drugs, he finds himself in debt to the Balkan drug dealer, Milo. As the week progresses, Frank struggles to come up with the money in time, but there is little forgiveness in the world of drugs. Frank bounces back and forth trying to collect the money anywhere he can, all the while abusing a woman who is trying to help him survive.

            Frank’s abuse of a woman who clearly cares for him is the springboard for the entire trilogy, because although the drugs remain constant within the series, it is the women who are the key to the progression of the films, even though this is easily missed for most of Pusher. Pusher is much more focused on how quickly things spiral out of control, and how little trust criminals seem to have for each other. It is a bloody and visceral film which sets up the next two films in the series.

            Writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn made this film instead of attending the well respected National Danish Film School, and it has a gritty realism about it that may have been lost otherwise. As a feature film debut it stands strong, but as a trilogy it is an intricate weaving of characters and brilliantly thought out themes. Pusher must be praised, for even though the films grow more complex as the trilogy continues, Pusher sets the mood and atmosphere perfectly.

Triad Underworld review

            Friendship is a strong theme in gangster films, especially in Wong Ching-Po’s Triad Underworld. In fact, the friendship at the center of this film seems much more significant than the action, which is subtle and rarely used. This is more of a crime drama than anything else, although one with a slow burn and an effective finale. It also has the distinction of pairing Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung in another Triad film.

            The film is split up between two similar storylines, albeit several decades apart and with the same key players. If this sounds confusing than my description is accurate the feeling watching this movie. With different actors playing the same characters at different points in their life, it can be hard to understand what is going on at the beginning of Triad Underworld. We start with mob boss Hung (Lau) and his flashy sidekick, Lefty (Cheung) as they celebrate the birth of Hung’s first child. Lefty warns Hung that he must leave town, because an assassination attempt will be made on his life.

            At the same time that Hung struggles with what he should do, we are given flashbacks to reveal his rise into the underworld with his first killing. Lefty was right beside him at this beginning, and what they went through together at the beginning helps Lefty to determine whether he will stay by Hung’s side during the latest and possible last confrontation.

If... Blu-ray review

            Malcolm McDowell owes as much to filmmaker Lindsay Anderson as Robert DeNiro does to Martin Scorsese. Anderson was coming off of the successful release of This Sporting Life, which was a landmark in the “Angry Young Men” movement in British cinema. His casting of McDowell as Mick Travis, one of the more rebellious students of a boarding school in late 1960s England, is only one of the many brilliant aspects of If….

            If…. was ahead of its time in many ways, which make it profound even today. The marketing campaign for the film says it all, including both quotes from critics who panned the film as well as those who loved it. This was a daring satire, which used violence and sex in shocking manners while telling the coming-of-age tale of Mick and his cohorts, Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood). This is not your traditional film, often blending reality with a fantasy world, mixing black-and-white with color.

            The final climactic scene is what aroused much of the controversy over this film, and it feels no less shocking in days after tragedies such as the Columbine massacre of 1999. It is clear, however, that this is not meant to be taken in a serious manner. If…. is a film filled with many moments which blend reality with fantasy, and the picture as a whole seems to be a rebel cry. McDowell’s wild-eyed look is perfect for the anti-authority Mick, and it is easy to see why this role eventually led to McDowell playing a much more frightening version in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

            The Blu-ray release of If…. presents a restored high-definition digital transfer, approved by cinematographer Miroslav Ondříćek and assistant editor Ian Rakoff. The film also comes with an optional audio commentary featuring film critic and historian David Robinson, who is joined by McDowell himself. Additional special features include an episode of the Scottish television series, “Cast and Crew,” from 2003, which has interviews with many from the film. There is also an interview with actor Graham Crowden, and Thursday’s Children, an award-winning documentary which was directed by Anderson prior to If….