Posts Tagged ‘review’

“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


“Conviction” Review

November 16, 2010 1 comment

When a movie has a very strong plotline and/or message, it can sometimes take its time to manifest itself. It will beat around the bush and make the viewer wait patiently until it has sufficient structure and weight to dig into the meaty part of the story. This is not one of those films, and whether or not that’s a good quality is up for grabs.

“Conviction,” directed by Tony Goldwyn, is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a small town woman who’s brother, Kenny, is wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a woman. Betty puts her entire life on hold for nearly two decades and puts herself through law school in order to prove Kenny’s innocence, when the authorities line up against her, for fear of having their mistakes revealed.

From the moment it was first announced, this film’s plot sounded like Oscar gold. A powerful human interest story of people overcoming huge obstacles in the search for truth and redemption, with the added bonus of being true to life. However, I’ve discovered that this type of story’s line that separates it between high art and Hallmark Saturday afternoon fare is very thin. “Conviction” straddles that border quite precariously.

Much more than a directing or writing heavy piece, this film is really an acting showcase, and in that respect, it mostly prevails. Hilary Swank is very good, as usual. Forceful and direct, she can definitely carry a scene, even if I’ve never really been that fond of her as an actress, in regard, at least, to everything she’s done after “Boys Don’t Cry.” Minnie Driver matches that Swank’s no-nonsense intensity, and adds a decent dose of humor.

More than anyone else, however, this film is a major Oscar vehicle for the long-overdue for a nomination Sam Rockwell. In all honesty, the performance isn’t really much better than anything else he’s ever done, which isn’t to say that it isn’t stellar. Rockwell is just an actor of such extraordinary depth and naturalism that, aside from Duncan Jones’ “Moon,” nothing has ever fully encompassed the range of his talent. Will he finally get a nomination? With such a crowded field, maybe not, but one of these years, he will score big with them and it will be worthwhile.

The biggest and most delightful surprise of the film is Juliette Lewis in a tiny part that brings back the acting prowess that made her such a commodity in the early to mid-nineties. She completely envelops her character of a trashy misanthrope who is a key witness for the prosecution in both appearance and quality. I would love to see her take on more roles like this and perhaps she could become a compelling leading lady once again.

The film itself doesn’t quite live up to its performances. The directing lacks a certain artistic finesse. It plays out like a TV movie, bland and by the numbers. The script is really kind of all over the place, in a manner of speaking. It’s chronologically skewed, but not in a beneficial or coherent way. It takes a good 40 to 45 minutes for the plotline to truly take shape.

The movie’s message, that goes kind of unspoken for a while, until it is literally spoken, is one of capital punishment. It’s true that had Kenny Waters’ gotten the death penalty, he never would have survived long enough for his sister to pull out all the stops for his redemption, but couldn’t they have come out with a better way of getting that across than by simply saying: “If your father had gotten the death penalty, he’d be dead by now.” A note to Tony Goldwyn: exercise subtlety.

One highlight is that the film has a very clear sense of where and when it takes place. The mis en scene is crafted to create a vivid portrait of this down and out family brought up in a rundown rural environment throughout the past three decades. The wardrobe, in particular, does a fantastic job in capturing the kind of motionless world of poverty and torpor that Hilary Swank’s character fights to come free of.

All in all, this is not much more than an exercise in mediocrity. It’s got a few moments that are hot and cold, but mostly just lukewarm and by the numbers. And, I’m not gonna lie, I’m kind of sick of reviewing lukewarm movies. 2010 has got to give me something that I can shout about soon…please?

GRADES:           B-           * * * / * * * * *           6.2 / 10.0


“Paranormal Activity 2″ Review

November 4, 2010 Leave a comment

When “The Blair Witch Project” was first released at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, it was predicted to become a classic. Critics across the country were united in its praise. Village Voice critic Michael Atikinson (then still known as Mr. Showbiz) said that it “…might be the scariest movie of all time.” How could anything go wrong?

Well, the answer is that the audiences saw it, and thus, the film met its backlash. Don’t get me wrong. Movies are made for the audiences, and if they don’t like it, that’s obviously saying something. However, the audience’s reaction was a bit too cold and unreasonable for my taste. Once it was released, the only quotes about the film everyone heard anymore were that it was “boring,” “shaky” and “a waste of money.” And that became it’s legacy.

Now, over a decade later, many people’s opinion has not changed, and yet the film’s impact on the world of cinema is unquestionable. Movies like “Open Water,” “Rec,” “Diary of the Dead,” “Cloverfield,” and even “District 9” and “United 93” have all been heavily influenced by this landmark film. Perhaps the most recent and prominent of all of these descendants is, of course, the “Paranormal Activity” features.

I was not so eager to jump on the bandwagon of those who fell in love with the first film. I thought that the characters were as flat as could be. You don’t really care so much whether they live or die, based on their unintelligence and carelessness of their decisions. The story is incredibly repetitive and 80% of the scares simply don’t have the desired effect that a movie like this should deliver.

“Paranormal Activity 2” is a bit of a puzzle, for while it corrects certain mistakes of the original, it goes about creating whole new ones. For sure, the biggest improvement is that the film completely ups the the ante from the first, in character, story and thrills. The story sets its eye on a family of four, including an infant child, automatically creating a bit more sympathy than for a couple of bumbling twenty-somethings. The film also reveals the reasons as to why this demon keeps haunting this particular family. However, this could either be an improvement or a flaw, depending on how you look at it, for it’s exactly the reason that no one knows just what this thing is or what it wants that makes it all the more scary.

One thing is for sure: anyone who felt that the first film did not pack a scary enough punch, rest easy. This film has at least three times the scares and jolts that were found in the previous “Paranormal Activity.” Furniture is thrown, people are tossed and the amount of startling moments is more than satisfying. One such shot, near the midpoint of the film, caused every member of the audience to instantly shit their pants. I lost feeling in my face for a short time after it happened.

Also, in this film, there is a much stronger air regarding a constant fear of death hovering around all of the characters throughout the film, and this is accelerated, especially, when the infant’s life hangs in the balance. And what’s more, instead of just one camera in the bedroom (which actually has become pretty iconic, I have to admit), there are a half dozen littered around the house recording all that happens, not to mention the usual handheld which helps pull together the personal side of the story.

However, just as a stronger following and additional cashflow have helped this movie, they also represent the drop of the second shoe. The film has quite simply become to “Hollywoodized.” The amount of horror film cliches has doubled, and for as many jolts and scares there are, now matter how effective they may be, half of them are pretty cheap. This theory is pretty much defined in a scene I recall when the teenage daughter, left alone with the baby, hears a strange noise outside and must go outside to investigate. With that, the ghost slams the door behind her and locks her out of the house! A-HA!

So, do I recommend this film? Yeah, I guess so. Even if it doesn’t strive for that much, it accomplishes what it’s meant to (scare people) and it does it better than the first one. So if you’re looking forward to an opportunity to lose feeling in your face, this movie is waiting for you, and don’t forget to thank “The Blair Witch Project,” for the experience.

GRADES:           B-           * * * / * * * * *           6.0 / 10.0


“Medium Cool” Mini-Review

October 27, 2010 Leave a comment

So, now that this blog has officially been up for nearly a month, one thing that I have learned is that I cannot write a review for every film that I see. It is simply too daunting of a task and I want to write as many posts as I can. Therefore, I will only have full reviews for films that I see in the theater. For all other films that I watch for the first time in the comfort of my own home, I will provide a mini-review of several paragraphs, outlining my likes and dislikes. That will give me a chance to give my opinion and rating of the film without minimizing the amount of films I write about.

I caught the film “Medium Cool,” directed by all-star cinematographer Haskell Wexler, earlier today. Many filmmakers have been accredited with bringing about the so-called “American New Wave” in cinema, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols and Bob Rafelson. However, not many of them truly capture the essence of its French predecessor, using the concept of cinema-verite, as well as Wexler does in this feature.

Haskell Wexler is mostly known for directing various documentaries during the 1960s and 70s and he brings that absolute feeling of reality and historical truth into this semi-narrative film. The movie follows the life of a news cameraman (Robert Forster) during the raging riptide that was 1968, ending during the  explosive 1968 Democratic Convention. Throughout the film, his character asks the question of how far is too far in regard to reporting the violence in human life and his journey takes him to some wonderful and dark places.

This was a film that really paved the way for the docudrama as a genre. It’s shot almost entirely handheld and carries a very realistic tone in both its writing and direction. Certain scenes of the film indubitably shine, in particularly one where Forster’s character ends up interviewing a group of semi-militant African-Americans, nearly against his will. The opening is also quite a stark introduction in which Forster and his audio companion make sure they get all the coverage they need of a fresh car accident before considering to call an ambulance. (featured below)

However, the film gets very much bogged down by the self-importance of its own style, and in doing so, forgets to really tell an interesting story. The film really doesn’t have much of a plot structure, but rather just tries to follow individuals and have that serve as a story. Needless to say, it does not. Yet, if the film’s intention is to carry you away in its whirlwind of reality and historical voyeurism, it certainly does that. “Medium Cool” is impacting and memorable and is certainly a dish of something different, even if viewed in today’s filmmaking climate.

GRADES:           B+           * * * * / * * * * *           8.0 / 10.0

“Jackass 3” Review

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s kind of difficult to write a review on this. It’s unnerving just to figure out how to classify it. I guess that the only real option is to call it a documentary, for it is documenting real life. Even if the reality of the film is simply a bunch of idiots performing idiotic tasks. But even after proper classification, does this film function as a movie should? The answer is no. However, against all odds, I have this to say: I don’t care.

I have been a more or less in-the-closet fan of the Jackass phenomenon since it first appeared on TV, and it goes without saying that the film does not offer anything more than a 90 minute long episode. As a sequel, it’s nothing more than an amped version of the one prior. Yet, there really isn’t anything more that you can ask from this film, as long as it keeps everyone in the theater either laughing at the top of their lungs, gagging into their popcorn, or both.

Some of the highlights include a tooth being pulled via a string tied to the bumper of a Lamborghini. Two men enjoy a game of tetherball, using a hive of killer bees. A toy train set volcano that turns out to be a man’s ass hemorrhaging with shit. Many, many innovative stunts performed with superglue. Let’s not forget, of course, the man being launched a couple hundred feet into the air, via bungee cords, while strapped into a “port-a-potty” filled to the absolute brim.

Actually, the most enjoyable skit, and probably one of the best additions to the franchise, was the opening credits shot with the Phantom HD Gold Camera. This was based on the ingenious credits implemented in the hilarious “Zombieland,” with various types of zombie kills in super-slow motion. Now, I saw “Jackass 3” in 2D, because people who know me know that I simply couldn’t give two shits about any dimension more than 2. However, the film’s use of Phantom footage is far superior than any dimensional work on display, in my opinion. Seeing a person’s face getting hit by a 40-pound halibut at 1000 fps is truly a phenomenal sight.

With all of the backlash that does seem to come to these films from people who find it ridiculous or obscene, I had a bit of a revelation while watching this. At the end of the day, it really is just a matter of degrees that separates these boys and their shenanigans from the classic show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” That parcel of separation is the mere fact that the “Jackass” fellows are doing the stunts intentionally, which does, undoubtably add a level of stupidity to the events. However, if a man were to “accidentally” get nailed in the crotch by a 2×4, it would be an instant classic segment. If someone were to “slip” and fall into a full port-a-potty, it would win the episode’s grand prize.

That being said, the biggest difference between the two venues, besides the intentionality and the extremity of the stunts, is that Jackass is just funnier by about ten fold, and that is the absolute bottom line. With all of the comedies released in a given year, I don’t think anything tickles my funny bone more than the insanity and stupidity of these gents. And for that reason I have seen every movie, and will continue to see them until Knoxville and Co. are gray in the hair and not even physically able to hit a ping pong ball with their…..well….yeah.

GRADES:            B             * * * 1/2 / * * * * *             7.0 / 10.0


“Valentine’s Day” Review

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Not a whole lot to say about this film, so let’s keep it short and sweet. All in all, it’s about seventeen different chick flicks combined into one, as if one wasn’t enough to begin with. They’ve managed to cram every sappy and cliched plotline from other cheap romantic comedies and micromanaged them into bite-sized form. You have a woman in love, who doesn’t realize there’s another woman. You’ve got two strangers meeting on an airplane. You’ve got a guy who meets a girl who has a mysterious double life. You’ve got a budding young teenage romance and an elderly couple trying to hang on to theirs, along with many, many more. All these plots and all of these people, and what do you get? A candy-coated mess of a movie.

There’s quite a few issues with this piece of cinema. A big one is the film’s overwhelming sense of predictability. In every single case, it seems obvious to the audience how every story will be resolved. You know who’s going to break up, who’s going to make up and who’s going to hook up, and usually it’s just not at all exciting. The acting, for the most part, is stale and dissatisfying. Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Jamie Foxx and Julia Roberts more or less just meander through their lines. The “Grey’s Anatomy” stars are completely flat. Ashton Kutcher is his usual douchebag self. And the combination of Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner is perhaps the worst acting couple in recent film history. The only highlights were perhaps Anne Hathaway with her energetic variety of personalities and the always lovely Shirley MacLaine as a guilt-stricken grandmother.

Another noticeable flaw is the film’s quite poor use of editing. A story with this bulky of a plot needs a lot of fine-tuned editing to keep a fluid motion. The structure of “Valentine’s Day” is jumbled and clunky, and without the help of solid cutting, it seems completely uneven, as well. The different stories don’t melt together in a rhythmic fashion and the momentum is almost completely lost in the shuffle. Also, the film makes some very strange attempts at parallel editing which don’t accomplish the point of the technique. Instead of intercutting two scenes at a steady rhythm and matching intensity, they simply have two things happening and cut them together in an increasingly awkward manner.

Overall, the biggest flaw is that in a film such as this with many different stories and boatloads of characters, they need to feed and feed off each other as well as exist in their own right. Don’t get me wrong, this film certainly does intertwine it’s characters, but it just does not do it well. If you were to cut this film into pieces and have each story work as an individual film, quite simply put, they would not do so.

None of the stories follow a solid three-act plot structure. None of them are meaty enough in substance and conflict in both story and characters to act as individual tales. When the characters interact outside the boundaries of their inherent stories, those stories are damaged and lose their relevance. When you look at films that successfully accomplish the crisscross method (“Magnolia,” “Short Cuts,” hell even “Crash” does it better than this film) each character, or group of characters, is interesting enough to practically have an entire movie based on just them, and therefore, the whole structure is the better for it. In the case of “Valentine’s Day,” instead of getting a pretty, ribbon-tied basket of delicious treats, you’re handed a flattened box of sloppy, melted, old chocolate recently bought at the local convenience store. In essence: a mess.

GRADES:            C-             * 1/2 / * * * * *             3 / 10.0


“The Contender,” Revisited

October 4, 2010 Leave a comment

So as I said, this site will not only be featuring reviews of films that I have never before seen, but also brief revisitations to films that I decide to watch again. Ironically enough, the first installment of these is, in my mind, one of the most underrated films of the previous decade and one that I’d love a chance to get on my soapbox for.

“The Contender” was released in 2000 with the helm of writer/director Rod Lurie and tells the story of the first woman ever to be nominated to fill the seat of the Vice President, along with a select group of Republican Congressman intent on destroying her by way of a sex scandal. This is an excellent film that really sets a statute for what political thrillers can be. The writing, while, at times, preachy, is honest and scathing. It is a no-holds-barred account of leadership at the highest level, like “The West Wing” told from a much darker perspective.

Rod Lurie stumbles on a few directorial roadblocks, making it awkwardly cheesy and almost a bit too “Capraesque” at points that don’t help to serve the overall tone of the film. However, it’s the investigation hearings in the House chamber where his style really shines. The mood is stark and realistic. The static camera angles heighten that sense of reality as though you were watching a much more interesting version of C-SPAN 2.

The film features an absolute wealth of stunning acting. Joan Allen definitely carries the weight of the lead role. The audience has little to no trouble standing behind her despite the heaviness of her character’s burdens. Jeff Bridges successfully transforms “The Dude” into a completely desirable presidential figure. Collected, funny and thoroughly inspiring. Many of the smaller roles pull there weight well, including Kathryn Morris, Mike Binder and especially Sam Elliott.

However, the true star of this film and the reason I can watch it over and over again is the magic of Gary Oldman. He embodies this character to a “t” as he does to so many others. His mannerisms and appearance carefully articulate the sense of piety that the congressman he plays holds for those on the other side of the aisle. And he engages us, constantly, just as he engages his enemy, without any sense of remorse or regret. He mercilessly tears through the script and leaves us with an antagonist both hate-inspiring, and yet equally human. By far, it is Oldman’s finest performance. In my eyes, one of the greatest supporting turns of all time, maybe the best of that decade.

GRADES:          A-          * * * *1/2 / * * * * *          9.2 / 10.0

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Review Guidelines

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

So I’ve seen a few movies lately and am very much looking forward to sharing my views on them. However, I think it’s important to go over certain aspects of my reviewing process, because, unfortunately, it’s a complicated one.

When it comes to seeing, reviewing and cataloging movies, I’m not afraid to say that I am incredibly anal. One of the deepest pleasures that I’ve ever had is ranking, rating, listing and grading every movie that I see from here till next Sunday, and that passion always filters its way into how I review films.

I have 3 primary methods of grading a film: a star rating, numerical scale and a letter grade. At this point, most people think that I’m out of my mind. Not many critics have one rating system (if any) and don’t dare revert from that small corner of the reviewing community. I find it literally impossible to rank films using such a limited system of categorization. I need more, and I think with such a wide, diverse array of films in the world, I cannot narrow them into any smaller groupings than I have to.

5 Star System

The first, and perhaps broadest system is my star system. It occurs in the form of * through ***** using 1/2’s. The following are few examples of films that I would grade using the star system. Some examples:

“Righteous Kill”   * *  out of  * * * * *

“Malcolm X”   * * *  out of  * * * * *

“Kramer vs Kramer”   * * * * 1/2 out of  * * * * *

Numerical Scale

The second form of ranking is perhaps the most complex. It is a 1 to 10 numerical scale using decimal increments of 2 tenths. This system is closely related to the star rating, for up and down it can be rounded to the closest interval. For example, the 3 star rating of “Malcolm X” is equivalent to a 6 out of 10 in the numerical scale. However, it could actually be anywhere from a 5.6 to a 6.4 and be rounded to a 3 star rating, as well.

This grading scale is most useful when ranking films on my all-time list, for it works as a tiered system for ranking every film I’ve ever seen. That list is a whole other bag of psychotic tricks that will be available soon on this blog for public consumption.

Letter Grades

The final system of classifying films for their quality is one of a simple A through F report card-style grade. Why I use this ranking as well is so that I can use a verbal system of describing a film based on the categorization of them in terms of grade. Here is a list of the letter grades with their equivalent verbal description

A+  =  Perfect (or as close to perfect as a film can come)

A = Amazing

A- = Excellent / Great

B+ = Very Good

B = Good

B- = Fairly Good

C+ = Average

C = Fairly Bad

C- = Bad

D+ = Very Bad

D = Horrible

D- = Atrocious

F = Perfectly Bad (None if hardly any redeeming qualities)

Now this system does have a method of matching each grade to its equivalent star and number, but explaining it would be one more headache for you readers, as if all of this wasn’t insane enough. Yet, trust me, it all pays off in the end.

Stay tuned for the many reviews that are now yet to come…