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New Additions: “Battleship Potemkin,” “The Fourth Kind,” “Of Human Bondage”

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

“Battleship Potemkin” (Sergei Eisenstein) – 1925

A film that definitely needs no introduction. One of the great Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature films, “Battleship Potemkin” tells the sort of true, yet highly sensationalized story of an uprising on a Russian warship during the Soviet Revolution. One really has to look beyond the fact that this is a blindingly strong piece of propaganda to realize that it is probably one of the ten most influential films in history. The film was perhaps the first to really use editing as not just a means to advance from one scene to the next, but to actually create and manipulate the tension and overall movement of the story. The Odessa Steps sequence is as incredible now as it has ever been, and the actual uprising and its aftermath is nearly its equal. Putting aside the editing, for a moment, the film also contains some of the most brilliantly realized shots I’ve ever seen, including a dolly shot of a woman, carrying her dead child, pleading with the soldiers on the steps as she stands in their shadows (featured above). So many elements combine here to create an incredible and vital film experience.

GRADES:           A            * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           9.4 / 10.0

 

“Of Human Bondage” (John Cromwell) – 1934

Bette Davis is easily one of my top five favorite actresses of all time. Therefore, I was really looking forward to finally see the film that really catapulted her into both stardom and acclaim (which back in that time period were basically the same thing). I was quite disappointed with the result. John Cromwell’s film is somewhere between being to sappy and two melodramatic, if those two aren’t one in the same, as well. The interpersonal relationships between the characters seemed largely superficial. Leslie Howard’s performance was flat and boring, while the direction was, for the most part, repetitive and lacking any kind of pacing to keep the viewer hooked. There were a few technical elements that helped advance the story, such as close-ups emphasizing the main characters physical disabilities. And as far as Bette Davis goes, her acting and emotions are as spot-on as ever. Yet,my God, this must have been before the job of dialect coach became one of the highest paying in Hollywood, for Davis uses one of the most absurd British accents I’ve ever heard.

GRADES:           C+            * * 1/2 / * * * * *           5.4 / 10.0

 

 

“The Fourth Kind” (Olatunde Osunsanmi) – 2009

Okay, all joking aside, this is one of the worst movies ever made. Put aside from the horrible acting,  terrible writing and absurd direction for a moment. This film’s idea and its conception are absolutely laughable and really quite insulting to any audience’s intelligence and time. The movie, about alien abductions, begins with a fourth wall breaking monologue by Milla Jovovich explaining that everything in the film is real and is supported by actual video-recordings. The film uses this “actual” footage through achingly irritating and distracting split-screen throughout the entire film. And yet, the kicker is that this actual footage completely fabricated. They use fake footage on the right to recreate fake footage, and all of it is terribly done. This movie actually pulls off a pretty fantastic feat in its ability to be two different horrible movies at the same time. I mean, really. What’s the fucking point? Either make a straight-up narrative movie, or a hardcore docudrama. Don’t try to do both as this colossally atrocious farce attempts. An epic fail of a movie.

GRADES:           D-            1/2 / * * * * *           1.4 / 10.0

 

“The Fighter” Review

January 6, 2011 2 comments

Every year, there seems to be a film that I go into not expecting anything from and not really looking forward to, whatsoever. Then, I see it, and my opinion of the film couldn’t shift more radically. This year, that film is David O’Russell’s “The Fighter.”

There were many aspects that I had stacked up against this film before viewing it. One was, let’s face it, it’s a boxing movie, and not since “Raging Bull” has a film about that particular sport ever come close to blowing me away. Boxing films are also usually a bit too sentimental for my taste. Also, I wasn’t sure if maverick director David O’Russell would be able to hold on to his originality for this venture, or if he would effectively sell out in the face of potential box office success. All of these questions would be answered.

“The Fighter” tells the very true story of Mickey Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, a street cleaner from Boston with dreams of being a boxer. However, his career has been managed, or rather mis-managed, his whole life by his over-bearing mother (Melissa Leo) and former boxer turned crack-addict brother, Dickey Ward (Christian Bale). One day, he meets his golden ticket in the form of a sexy bartender (Amy Adams) who convinces him to ditch his dysfunctional family in order to succeed at his dream. However, his loved ones refuse to go quietly and the odd group must find a way to work together to achieve any hope of victory.

This film is phenomenal. It had me from the opening shots of Dickey air-punching Mickey from a POV approach. It had me from Mickey calling his father a silverback gorilla after he chases down his stoned son through a backyard. It had me when it literally made fun of me, and other film snobs, when Mickey tries to show off by taking Adams to a snooty, French arthouse film. This film had me for nearly the entire film.

David O’Russell (“Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees”) has never quite made a movie like this before. Even when his former fare occasionally gets serious, it never loses its quirky, tongue-in-cheek essence. Here, the director is not necessarily fearless or even experimental, in a word, but not beholding to expectations of what this should be like if he made it. It’s somewhere between a crowd-pleasing, fist-pounding extravaganza and a subtle character study into the depths of family, addiction and self-worth.

One thing’s for sure about both the writing and direction of “The Fighter.” It’s all heart. Despite a few hitches in regard to how Mickey’s motley crew of an entourage comes together, the film almost never feels superficial or forced. The characters and their relationships all feel real and this family dynamic is one that will not soon be forgotten in the world of cinema. Another important note pertains to the setting. It seems that everywhere one turns now, there is a “Boston-themed” movie. “The Departed,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Mystic River.” Many of these are phenomenal films. Yet of all of them, it’s “The Fighter” that truly uses the community atmosphere of Boston as not only a setting, but a character in itself. The streets and their people breathe the material and give it new life.

If the Oscars had ever got around to creating a “Best Ensemble Cast” award (they won’t, but there’s always wishful thinking), I don’t see how any film could possibly be more deserving of such an honor this year than the one in question. Every performance pulls its weight and is worthy of recognition. Even the bit parts, from Ward’s half dozen sisters, his rebellious father and a charismatic cop-turned-trainer whose character actually played himself in the film. Wahlberg is obviously the weakest link, and yet it is still one of his best turns.

Amy Adams, who has never had a more rebellious or fiery part, makes the audience fall head over heels for her. Meanwhile, the other female performance is one for the ages. I remember back when Melissa Leo had a much smaller and unrecognized role in Alejandro Gaonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” and I was the only one who was noting her performances as one of the highlights. Now, she’s two steps away from potentially winning an Academy Award. To go from obscurity to recognition this late in life cannot be the easiest feat, and yet Leo has more than proven that it can be done.

It’s no joke, however, that this film belongs to Christian Bale. Bale has had a long career with ups and downs and some very fine performances dating all the way back to his incredible childhood role in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” Fans of his have long wondered when he would finally come across the role that would land him an Oscar nomination. I have a feeling that with this role, the buck won’t stop with just a nomination. This is the crowning jewel of Bale’s relatively young career. He walks a thin character tightrope between an overbearing, drug-addicted older brother whom the audience loathes and a sympathetic, washed-up father and former boxer who can’t seem to catch a break. Both elements of the role he has nailed down to a “t” and his work makes the audience await his every emotion with eager anticipation.

Probably the biggest question on my mind when entering into this film was whether it would be a “Rocky” or a “Raging Bull,” as it seems that nearly all boxing movies are in one way or another. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the answer: neither. “The Fighter” is an almost wholly original concept for a boxing film, or any film. It’s as gritty as it is lofty and as exciting as it is dramatic. It’s as much an in-depth character-study as it is a gloriously narrative-driven journey of hope and adventure. Throw in a few phenomenal performances, and you’ve got one of the best films of 2010.

GRADES:           A-            * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           9.0 / 10.0

New Additions: “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” “Dirty Harry,” “Fame”

January 1, 2011 Leave a comment

“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” (Paul Weitz) – 2009

Yet another pre-teen book series destined to pan out on the big screen. Well, not quite. This quite underwhelming little farce about vampires, freaks and everything else under the moon just does not have the chops to make it in cinema, and its incredibly poor box office definitely put a stone cold halt to its chances of continuation. The film does have scattered moments of nearly intelligent humor, mostly from the mouth of John C. Reilly, who’s always enjoyable and actually gets to relish in playing just a straight-up cool character. Some of the visual effects are also very well made. However, none of this can save it from being flat and, as Roger Ebert puts it, bloodless. It is that in both the lack of conciseness in its narrative and drive, as well as the quality of bloody-good fun. I mean really, folks. This is a vampire movie that has virtually no blood in it. Where’s the fun in that?

GRADES:           C            * * 1/2 / * * * * *           4.8 / 10.0

 

“Dirty Harry” (Don Siegel) – 1971

What a shame that a film like this one has risen to the rank of “classic” in the long-standing genre of cops and robbers. Don Siegel’s ultra-conservative response to “Bonnie and Clyde” is as shallow, absurd and disgusting as its politics are. The protagonist, “Dirty” Harry Callahan is one of the most repulsive and cartoonish heroes ever to spring from the mind of white America. The thing that makes him this is the fact that he is not an anti-hero. He is not a character that the audience roots for or enjoys but knows that they’re not supposed to. There’s nothing about the film that examines the fact Callahan is a horrible person. No, for the audience, he is a red-blooded hero that we can all admire. Aside from this, the story and its direction are pretty bad. Too many laughable moments to count. Good things about the film? Well, it’s got an admirable sound mix.

GRADES:           C-            * * / * * * * *           4.0 / 10.0

 

“Fame” (Kevin Tancharoen) – 2009

A letdown film that actually had me kind of stoked after an above average trailer. A remake of a film that I haven’t seen, I cannot imagine “Fame” has much to offer that the original did not. Much like films of its kind such as “Drumline” or “Step Up,” the film is a wet dream for dancers or musicians who live the life of these (s0-called) characters. Yet, for everyone else who understands movies, this is an absolute mess. Yes, a few of the musical numbers are pretty fun, but they’re far from show-stopping. The characterizations are a joke. Out of the wealth of characters, not a single one is fleshed out properly. Coming in and out of the story so randomly that you really can’t keep track of what they’re up to, nor should you really care. The movie also contains some rotten performances, including that of Kherington Payne, big shot from the game show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Well, maybe she can do that, but hopefully this is a lesson for her to remain on the dance floor where she belongs and off of the silver screen.

GRADES:           C-            * * / * * * * *           3.6 / 10.0


New Additions: “Duck Soup,” “Harold and Maude,” “The Battle of San Pietro”

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Hello, readers. Hope that everyone had a happy holiday. I, myself, finally got a hold my first Blu ray player (yes, I said my first). And I’ll tell you what: if I had known that I’d be able to stream my Netflix instant queue onto my TV in full HD through said player for no additional charge, you can bet I would have gotten one a long time ago.

So, now that the The Mitchell List has gone public, I feel that it’s worth noting to my readers when new films that I’ve never seen before get added to the ranks. Therefore, I’m starting a new series of posts which I will call New Additions. In these, I will offer a brief, paragraph-long review and the usual rankings so that you know my basic thoughts on the film. And you can bet, now that I have an infinite wealth of movies into my living room, there will hopefully be a wealth of these.

 

“Duck Soup,” (Leo McCarey) – 1933

I must say that I am not as fluent with the works of the Marx Brothers as I am with those of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Yet after viewing “Duck Soup,” it’s certainly no joke that they are raucously talented and hilarious. The gags come as fast, witty and very well-planted. The mirror gag and hat-stealing scenes in particular are just a joy to watch, mostly due to their incredible choreography. The film also contains a hint of social commentary, even if it seems weak compared to today’s standards. However, the film runs into trouble when the comedy bits start to get in the way of things like structure, character and all of the other things that make up a film. The movie, then, encompasses more of the traits of a fantastic stand-up routine then a feature.

GRADES:           B            * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           7.4 / 10.0

 

“Harold and Maude” (Hal Ashby) – 1971

My understanding is that this film is known for having an insane cult following, in essence, almost inventing the term. I will say that the film takes on some unorthodox and original concepts. The suicide concept is particularly dicy (although I’m still kind of confused as to how he pulled some of them off, and galled that they didn’t explain them). It also contains great performances from Ruth Gordon and Vivian Pickles. However, the film raises too many unanswered questions. One that constantly got on my nerves was, why aren’t any of these people in jail? They really are a lot more horrible and less sympathetic than the plot lets on. And the ending leaves the viewer a lot less satisfied then one would wish from an “inspirational” film.

GRADES:           B-           * * * / * * * * *           6.4 / 10.0

 

“The Battle of San Pietro” (John Huston) – 1945

Some of the stories about this movie are just as interesting, if not more so, than the film itself. In a response to to claims from the military that his documentary was anti-war, John Huston said that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot. Another tale tells of a woman standing up in the theater and shrieking that she sees her son during a montage of American corpses. One thing is for sure: this film paved the way for the modern-day documentary. When most of the war time news was only showing the cheerful and inspiring moments of the war, Huston displays the gritty realities of combat. It is a direct influence on films like “Restrepo,” and really, well, every other war film made since. It is also an ode to filmmakers who must overcome huge obstacles to get their films viewed, for what’s a bigger obstacle than the U.S. Military.

GRADES:           A-           * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           8.6 / 10.0

 

My Top Ten Trailers of 2010

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

So, it’s been a while since I’ve made my last list, aside from the unveiling of the Mitchell List. My last compilation was the Top Ten Movie Monsters of all time, which was a reasonable hit for the site. Now, it’s time for the second edition: The Top Ten Trailers of 2010.

I love movie trailers. I know that some people can’t stand them and even refuse to watch them, but I believe that they can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of going to the movies, as long as their made well. It’s always, actually, been a semi-dream job of mine to edit trailers, because there’s really nothing more fun.

In order to be phenomenal, a trailer must have many of the same qualifications of a great film. It has to have stellar pacing, it must give proper introduction to the film’s character’s and plot. However, unlike a film, it cannot give too much away of the plot and has to leave something exciting for the ticket price. It usually doesn’t hurt to have a decent choice of music, too.

The following are a selection of my favorite trailers that encompass all of these aspects. This includes trailers only for films released during the 2010 year, or else “Battle: Los Angeles” would most certainly be here. Without, further ado, here are the five runners-up:

Read more…

“I Love You Phillip Morris” Review

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Out of all the major cinematic questions that have burned in my mind over the last decade or so, one is beginning to boil over. What in the world is it going to take for Jim Carrey to ever get nominated for an Oscar? He did more than enough proving during his stellar work in “The Truman Show,” followed it up with a compelling portrayal in “Man on the Moon,” and topping it off with perhaps one of the most honest and heartfelt performances of the decade with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Now, he kicks off the start of the new decade with perhaps his best, and easily his funniest performance of all time in “I Love You Phillip Morris,” the uproarious new comedy by Glenn Ficarra and John Pequa.

This film has had a truly rocky time getting its distribution nailed down. It first premiered TWO YEARS AGO at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and has since been tossed around from studio to studio unable to secure a true release. Due to both distribution finance troubles and the film’s explicit gay themes, which tended to scare investors away, the film was repeatedly passed over for release. However, we can all be thankful that this movie is finally playing in front of a wider audience for it is one not only to be enjoyed, but relished in.

It tells the somehow true, though I’m sure over-exagerrated, account of Steven Russell (Carrey), lawyer, cop, con artist, escape artist and homosexual extraordinaire. He started off as a regular meat-and-potatoes, god-fearing man, but after a severe car accident, he begins living his life way out loud as an openly gay sensationalist. However, his new lifestyle also brought with it a drive to commit massive amounts of theft and fraud, which eventually lands him in prison. This is where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris, played with a sensitive flair by Ewan McGregor. After leaving confinement, Russell cannot escape his criminal ways and eventually breaks up his perfect new life with Morris and finds himself being taken back to prison, again, and again….and again.

I can honestly say, with full confidence, that without the magic of Jim Carrey, this film might not be half as phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance from the actor that carries so much range. The film is a showcase of nearly all his talents, from being an unrivaled force of slapstick physicality to a shining beam of heartfelt humanity. Carrey really does carry (no pun intended) himself unlike any actor, perhaps, who ever lived. He has such levels of confidence and bravado that will someday put him in the ranks of screen comic legend, up with the likes of Gene Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and yes, perhaps even Buster Keaton. I dare not say Charlie Chaplin for fear of an angry mob outside my door.

As far as the film, itself, goes, there are definitely some highlights. One noticeable aspect of the mis en scene is the indefinite use of the sunny day. Never does it snow, rain, or really explore any type of weather aside from the most beautiful and desirable conditions that any vacationer or retiree could ever hope for. This reflects the constant high that Steven gets off of living. Even as his path darkens into a life of crime and evasiveness, there’s never a storm cloud on his horizon.

This film is just a barrel of fun. Jim Carrey is at his comic best. Ewan McGregor is his perfect opposite. The screenplay is crisp, hilarious and never, EVER boring. There’s really something for everyone…well, except (and I’m sorry to put it so bluntly) homophobes. And I guess that’s one of the most intriguing parts of this film is the mirror that it holds up to the present climate of society. I would say, “to each, his own,” but I’m sorry, that just isn’t cutting it anymore.

If it weren’t for the bigots, as well as the general sense of puritanical hatred that somehow still survives in this country, this film would not just be known as “the gay Jim Carrey movie,” but would rather be setting the standard for today’s romantic comedy, a genre that isn’t exactly generating any classics these days. Another way of putting it, in a civilized, intelligent and fair-minded society, a fantastic piece of cinema like this would not have to sit on the shelf to for two years, but rather making audiences laugh, everywhere.

GRADES:           B+            * * * * / * * * * *           8.4 / 10.0

 

“Black Swan” Review

December 8, 2010 3 comments

For a thriller about a ballerina having a nervous breakdown, I don’t think it’s possible for “Black Swan” to have accumulated higher expectations prior to its release. Not even counting the immense cult following that a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky carries with him in his pocket. I’ve been watching the trailer constantly since summer and I can’t seem to turn on the web or even in the grocery store without a glimpse of this film’s publicity. With this much wood fueling the fire, the less of a net it has to work with, and sadly, the film falls a bit short of what it was originally aiming for.

Don’t get me wrong. The film is very good. Aronofsky taps some of the brilliance invoked by Argento, Cronenberg and even Hitchcock to create event of psychosexual madness to add to his to his, for the most part, stellar repetoire. The film uses nearly every available facet of filmmaking to create levels of shock and paranoia to frazzling heights.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a young woman who has committed her body, mind and soul completely to the art of ballet dance. Her entire life has become a whirlwind of pressure from her overbearing mother (which is an understatement), her director, for whom she has a confused sexual disposition towards, and an always lurking understudy, for whom we won’t even get into sexual discussion with. However, her greatest opposition may lie in a darker place, one that may very well be unconquerable.

If there is one theme that maverick director Darren Aronofsky has loved to document, it would be that of obssession. No matter how elaborate the stories get or layered his characters become, the driving force behind them always comes in the form of almost rabid fixation of both the tangible and sometimes the intangible, as well. Here, that topic is brought to new depths, perhaps too deep for its own good. The director composes his film much like the violent crescendo of a classical symphony, using Tchaikovsky’s own themes blended with Clint Mansell’s incredible score to raise each scene to be a bit more intense than the last, straight up to the spectacle that is the final note.

The cast is well chosen. Vincent Cassel provides the perfect blend of bravado mixed with sheer creepiness in his unorthodox methods of both teaching and seducing the main character. Barbara Hershey is the perfect embodiment of Portman’s mother, both in appearance and ability, even if at times her domineering manner can feel a bit forced by the situation. Mila Kunis also holds her own as Portman’s dark apprentice, though never really provides a standout scene for which she can compete with the real star of the film.

That aforementioned ray of light is the incomparable Natalie Portman. Her Nina Sayers IS the film, and the reason to go see it, if there be no other. Portman spent nearly a year of her life losing weight, training in the art of ballet, and doing whatever else was in her power to become this role. And even if her physical transformation wasn’t a standout factor, her emotions are spot on in every single moment that she’s on camera. In a scene near the end when a moment of clarity and revelation reaches her during her opening night and she works to cover her rolling tears with snow-white make-up, we literally see her become not only a great actress, but one of the greatest of our time. The Best Actress field is very strong this year, but I would have no doubt that she could bring home the gold, nor have a problem with it, either.

Aronofsky uses an immense amount of mis en scene to enhance the levels of suspense and paranoia in his film. The alternating tones of black and white help emphasize the duality of Portman’s character, and the placement of mirrors in moments of crisis and fear help illustrate her own self-destruction. Massive kudos to Matthew Libateque on the most gorgeous cinematography of Aronofsky’s career. The close-ups on Portman’s feet as they patter and skip across the studio floor are some of the most real and compelling moments of the film. The following-shot is also becoming a signature trademark of Aronofsky’s style.

Yet, alas, the second shoe had to drop at some point. The film, while always gripping, just gets out of hand, especially in the third act. Aronofsky really can’t decide what type of film he’s trying to create. The character-study is a potent selling-point for the audience to  hold on to. However, the director keeps making attempts at B-movie horror to change the pace up with using jump-scares and fake-outs. When these elements begin to appear, they seem out of place, and when they accelerate, they become overwhelming, just as the film does. And while the ending note is one of metaphorical triumph for the director and his film, this viewer wishes that the final jog to the finish didn’t have to be quite so draining.

GRADES:           B+            * * * * / * * * * *           8.2 / 10.0

 

“Monsters” Review

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

A few months ago, I had commented that the visual effects artists who designed “Skyline” weren’t qualified to make a great movie. However, I have displayed no end of admiration and anticipation for Gareth Edwards’ low-budget creature-feature “Monsters.” For the longest time, I never realized the hypocrisy I used in making that distinction or the double standard that I set. Now, I realize, that there is no double standard.

“Monsters” is set in the near future, in which a probe coming back from the edges of the solar system crashed and infected much of Central America with alien organisms. These enormous octopi-like creatures now thrive in what’s known as the “infected zone,” a place where people and it seems a lot of military equipment have trouble surviving. Two Americans, a photographer and his boss’s daughter, must travel through that zone in order to get back to America.

This movie is a mess, straight up. It has an interesting concept and I respect the fact that it was attempted on such a small budget, but simply put, it doesn’t pull it off. The film DRAGS. My God, does it drag like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m really not sure if there was a point in film in which I was genuinely frightened, or even thrilled. The scenes in which people actually are put in mortal danger are stifled by a dialogue or action soon beforehand explaining how the monsters “really aren’t that bad.”

All the main ingredients of the film, such as acting, directing and writing, are all subpar, at best. Edwards really doesn’t have much of a hand at working with his performers. They wander around, meandering through their boring and mostly meaningless dialogue, trying to create some sort of emotional (or any kind at all, really) link to the audience. Had their been said link, the viewer might not be simply hanging on for some decent monster action and therefore be let down. Instead, we are just as bored by these people as we are by their quest through the incredibly dangerous “INFECTED ZONE,” which should have been more accurately titled, “THE ZONE IN WHICH THE CHANCES OF RUNNING INTO SOME TROUBLE INCREASE BY ABOUT 5 TO 10 PERCENT.”

Another quick note to Edwards in regards to his writing: if you want to try and work a message into your film, try to be a little more tact about it. The film has an obvious metaphorical subplot the relates to the current immigration issue in North America. I won’t go into too many details, but in its application, this facet of the film could have been touched on with a bit more subtlety. I’ve always believed that the softer a director goes about planting his bomb, the bigger a crater it will leave. Edwards couldn’t have worked more loudly if he tried.

Finally, we get to the portion of the film which should have been stellar, no doubt, and that is the special effects. Yes, they are decent, and it is quite a feat that Edwards created the visuals all from his own resources and skills. And yet, when you remove that notion from the equation, the quality really does start to decline. When you look at one of the animated tanks strolling down a road, you think to yourself, “Wow, he did a really good job with that animation.” However, a few moments later, you move on and think, “Even though he did a really good job with that animation, it’s pretty goddamn obvious that it’s not a real tank,” and suddenly, the overall credibility of the film starts to decline.

I cannot say that this was not an admirable attempt at a film, working such a great concept into an incredibly low-budget. Yet, I just cannot bring myself to applaud this movie on any aspect of it. Aside from the above-mentioned fare, the production quality was pretty sad as well. So many shots, day or night, were horribly underlit, mostly because they’re not lit at all. This approach causes nearly all of the night photography to be grainy and indiscernible. In a documentary-style approach, this might work, but it is not, it’s simply low-budget. And as a film student, I hear it said too many times than I can count that “If I had millions of dollars, I could make that film so much better.” Well, I think that even working with this film’s minuscule budget, a number of my friends still could have made a better film.

In the end, what we’re left with is less a film than it is Gareth Edwards’ VFX demo reel. It really does work better as a trailer, for then he can work in all of the pretty works of animating and compositing in short clips of 1 to 2 seconds, and then not have to worry about production, acting, direction, writing, cinematography or any of the other aspects of this film that are going to have to stand the test of time and ultimately….will not.

GRADES:           C-           * 1/2 / * * * * *           3.4 / 10.0

“Inside Job” Review

November 26, 2010 1 comment

Shortly before the 15 finalists for Best Documentary were announced, I screened one of the frontrunners, Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job.” As of right now, if there was one film that deserves to break into the top 5 and eventually take home the gold, it would be this one.

The film is a no-holds-barred exposé on the Wall Street banking industry and how it literally brought America, and really the world as well, to its knees. Through loads of investigative journalism and on-point interviews, Ferguson uncovers how greed, irresponsibility and deregulation (or in other words “‘Reagan’-ization”) of corporate banks caused the worst recession of nearly any generation alive today.

There are a number of respectable, some even phenomenal, documentarians working in film today: Michael Moore, Davis Guggenheim, Heidi Ewing, Errol Morris, and, of course, Alex Gibney. However, in absolute truth, I don’t think any of them impress me as much as Charles Ferguson, and by God, this is only his second feature film. His debut movie, “No End in Sight,” was easily the single best documentary about the Iraq war, outlining the faults and atrocities committed by the individuals in power. Here, he brings that same demanding insight to the the most recent act of white collar crime to cripple our country.

Now, even though the film does its best to put its information into Layman’s terms, it still deals with some dense material. It outlines the events and actions that lead up to the bankruptcy of both Lehman Brothers and AIG. Wall Street CEOs were endorsing predatory lending, as well as financially betting against properties and stocks after pressuring others to invest into them. They blew millions of dollars on bonuses and salaries, not to mention cocaine and prostitutes, and didn’t create a net for themselves while they drove their businesses, backed with the money of millions of innocent people, straight into the ground.

One of the most laudable aspects of Ferguson’s films is that, unlike some real-life filmmakers, he never lets a good story interfere with the truth, so to speak. This film is not a work of entertainment. It is certainly entertaining at times, but it does overemphasize in its theatrics. Instead, it works the viewer with an onslaught of hard facts. Ferguson lets the information speak for itself, and it speaks quite loudly.

What’s more is that, unlike Michael Moore, another documentarian who goes for the throat, Ferguson never makes himself the main attraction in the film. He is always the faceless man behind the camera. And while Ferguson is never seen, his voice is always present, hammering into his interview subjects. He never gives them time to breathe, let alone attempt to obfuscate their way to a vague, insufficient response. With every word he utters, you feel the passion and resolve in his voice, and you know that every bit of this film is on his shoulders.

The look of the film is fantastic. Every interview is lit perfectly, and the surrounding environments are always used to the best that they can be in framing up each subject. Also, the film contains some of the most gorgeous aerial cinematography that you will see this year. The soaring plates of downtown Manhattan are so breathtaking, I felt that I should have been watching in IMAX. And while the final message of the film may be a bit cliched and vague, the ending shot of the Statue of Liberty speaks volumes more than words ever could.

In the end, there is one characteristic that “Inside Job” and all of Charles Ferguson’s films have that elevate them above the rest is the element of rage. This director has a greater ability to absolutely infuriate his audience than any of his peers. If a viewer goes into this movie without a true knowledge or interest in the subject at hand, they will for sure leave with one, and leave pissed off, as well. And if that is not the true goal of any documentarian with a passion, than I don’t know what is.

GRADES:           A-           * * * * 1/2 / * * * * *           8.8 / 10.0

 

“Robin Hood” Review

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been a long time devoted fan of Ridley Scott, and after viewing one of his most recent films “American Gangster,” I thought that he was up among the likes of Martin Scorsese as being one of the best depicters of violence, its causes and consequences, in American cinema, maybe the best, as well as just being an all-around cinematic visionary. After viewing his latest, the adaptation of the old Robin Hood fantasy, it’s my humble opinion that he needs to reevaluate his craft.

Everyone knows the story of “Robin Hood,” even if the gist of many people’s knowledge comes from a fox in a green outfit or God forbid, Kevin Costner. A freedom fighter who resided in the woods with his merry men that steals from the richer classes of a brutal medieval king and redistributes among the poor. This telling of the famous character is actually more of a prequel, showing how the hero began his escapades. Sad to say, the backstory is just not as interesting as the tale, itself.

Russell Crowe plays the title character, obviously, and tries his absolute damnedest not make it appear that he’s playing General Maximus all over again, though has a tough time succeeding. I’ll tell you that if Crowe’s character in this had a fraction of the amount of depth or inner angst as that which he portrayed in “Gladiator” (and won an Oscar for), his performance might have blossomed more. The other roles, however, are filled quite well. Scott Grimes and William Hurt shine as Will Scarlet and Marshall Bell. Kevin Durand, who almost always finds himself in the part of a villain or proverbial asshole, plays the Little John sidekick role perfectly. I would have preferred someone more attractive to play Maid Marion, but Cate Blanchett still pulls her weight in the acting department. Eileen Atkins and Mark Strong are both fantastic. Yet, while Danny Huston is superb in the role of King Richard, someone with a bit more experience and clout could have been better cast as Prince John over Oscar Isaac.

The script isn’t a terrible thing. The story is a valiant effort with a decently concocted structure. The characters, however, are really quite shallow in their quality and value. They seem to exist merely for the sake of the role they play in the story, rather than thrive in their own right. Those backstories and motives that are actually touched on are done so briefly and vaguely. Little John, Friar Tuck and Eleanor of Aquitane are all stupendous character concepts, and yet in the film, their bones are bare of much substantial story meat. This is all very disappointing for a scribe like Brian Helgeland who has produced some of the most layered and complex characters in film history in previous efforts like “Mystic River” and the incomparable “L.A. Confidential.” The story also suffers from a climax that is utterly anticlimactic and unsatisfying.

Scott has most of his usual stylists on line for this production, including cinematographer John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia. Sadly, Oscar-winning costume designer Janty Yates, whose stunning work is evident in “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “American Gangster,” is absent, and that absense is evident. Overall, much of the production value that I would expect of a Scott film is surprisingly not up to par. I miss the creative angles and gritty texture of the camerawork and the rapid fire cuts turned into rhythmically golden editing. I wanted a thunderstorm of a visual experience and got calm seas instead.

Not to be too much of a pragmatist, because this issue shouldn’t bare that much weight in the grand scheme, but the film is really lacking with a PG-13 rating. These are medieval times, when weapons were anatomically destructive enough to make a grown man cringe. When people would behead each other practically for sport. Ridley Scott simply does not perform as well when constrained, but rather superb when he is turned loose. The violent nature of Scott’s mind should be allowed to roam free and let the blood flow and thus would the story, the style and the viewer’s satisfaction.

Overall, Robin Hood is a disappointment. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but simply an average one. Scott, it appears, just didn’t take it seriously enough to really add his signature touch. It lacks the sense of grim tonality in both artistic texture and value of story. Instead, it feels like live action Disney adaptation, unwilling to delve into the more stark and foreboding aspects that could have been brought out of such a story. Hopefully Ridley will regain his touch for the upcoming “Alien” prequels or we may begin to miss his unique contributions to the world of cinema.

GRADES:           C+           * * 1/2 / * * * * *           5.4 / 10.0