April 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Entertainment, Home Video

“I wish we could have met in a different way,” is a comment paraphrased from the film “Carnage”, a social commentary film based upon the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. I haven’t seen it on stage, but Polanski does his best to bring the theatrical energy from the characters to the screen. And he achieves this through his cast of actors, who turn out some of their best performances in their careers to make this into an appealing film to watch. Also, Polanski uses a few props as symbols to promote some of the themes in the play itself.

The plot of the film is very simple: it begins with a bunch of kids at a playground who get into a fight. We do not hear what they are arguing about, we only see the scene devolve into a shoving match. At its climax, one of the kids takes a stick, and swings it right into the face of one of the other kids.

The next shot is at that kid’s parents’ house, and his parents are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly respectively). They are in the middle of writing out a synopsis of what had happened to their child, while the perpetrator’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz respectively), look on and make minor suggestions as they see fit.

At first, the two couples are in complete agreement on how to handle the situation. The Longstreets feel that they are being polite and civil by inviting the Cowans over to their house, even though the Cowan’s son struck their son with a stick, requiring some dental work and some other wounds to heal.

The Cowans look to be apologetic, and gracious that the Longstreets are being such kind hosts, such as offering them cobbler and coffee. But as the couples continue to talk, what they truly feel underneath begins to surface, and things go the way of the playground from the first scene.

No one comes to physical blows; but the emotional blows they take at each other, all because of their defensiveness and insecurities about themselves, are completely exposed. And, of course, once Scotch is introduced, you know nothing good is going to come of it. But it’s not always just the one couple pitted against the other. Polanski’s blocking shows that sometimes it’s men versus women, sometimes it’s one against three, and sometimes it’s parent versus parent.

Two props are also skillfully used by the director, one that probably first belonged to the play, and that’s Alan’s cell phone that incessantly goes off and he incessantly answers it. In an act of defiance, one of the characters finally disposes of it in a vase full of tulips, provided by the Longstreets to give their living room an inviting presence for the Cowans’ visit. Another prop is the mirror, in which a few times, someone stands near it. Never once do they look at it.

The film only runs at about 80 minutes, and once you realize they are never going to leave the living room, and settle into the characters, you get used to it. Plus, the conflict starts popping quickly, and once the sparks start flying, it becomes a very entertaining film to watch.

As far as the message of the film, and I assume the play as well, this isn’t exactly uncharted territory with regards to the social commentary. We all know how it goes: the biggest monsters out there are ourselves. Using a title like “Carnage” may suggest this is a horror film, and in a way, it is. The characters eviscerate each other with words and try to needle each other, and hurt their feelings. But the way the actors are totally invested in their characters makes this work extremely well. We know these characters are going to hate each other, because sooner or later, they’re going to talk to each other, and tell each other how they really feel.

And honesty is more brutal than any physical object could be.

My rating:  :-)

Django Unchained

January 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

I don’t know that I can say Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers. Although, I will say this: when he makes a great movie, he makes me re-think that position. But his career hasn’t been all that consistent. After getting off to a fine start with the slightly superficial but entertaining “Reservoir Dogs”, he really stepped up with “Pulp Fiction”–and then, seemed to disappear. “Jackie Brown” was a nice sleeper, but it was a bit of a let down after something as great as “Pulp Fiction”. Then came “Kill Bill”, a movie that literally split me in two. I liked elements of it, but I didn’t love any of it. His “Grindhouse” offering of “Death Proof” left me unimpressed as well. Oh, and as far as a screenwriter–I did really enjoy “True Romance” as well.

Then came “Inglourious Basterds”, probably my favorite of all of his films. It was Tarantino at his finest–not just as Tarantino, but as a filmmaker in general. He just flat out nailed it with that picture. It was epic, it was haunting, it was funny, it was enthralling, and it was moving, on top of it being just plain interesting throughout.

He follows it with “Django Unchained”, a film I had a lot of interest in because he seemed to be very inspired by Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone (two Sergios, one…nevermind) and I was intrigued to see what he did with the taboo context of the story, which revolves around slavery.

Tarantino knows how to cast a film, that’s for sure. He enlists again the help of one of the finest actors out there right now, Christoph Waltz, to play the sidekick to the hero of the film, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. Immediately, the film looks appealing. Throughout it, there are some trademark Tarantino moments, and there are some just flat out great scenes. Jamie Foxx is certainly Oscar-worthy, proving again how strong he is as a leading man.

But as a movie, on the whole, something just didn’t work for me. As much as I hate to admit it, I think it truly is the context in which the story revolves around. There is almost too much joy involved with this film in order to give it a pass for taking place during the time of slavery, which is a scar that will never go away in this country. We can move past it, we can forgive it somehow–but to create a fun action western picture out of it, just left me cold. 

Django is a freed slave by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) who becomes a bounty hunter with him, ”making money killing white people”. We learn that Django is married and his wife is being held at a very fancy plantation owned by a charismatic young man named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his finest role in years). Through most of the first half of the film, we see Django and Schultz’ exploits as bounty hunters, going after villainous slave owners and racists, in the name of revenge I suppose. There’s one would-be comic scene in which one of the racists (played by Don Johnson) known as Big Daddy tries to rally some men to lynch Django and Schultz wearing masks. But the holes aren’t quite where they should, and it winds up causing a stir among the posse. I know Tarantino wanted to lighten the mood here and say “Haha look at these idiot racists!” But the scene to me just fell flat. It was so childishly written and almost just too goofy for a movie like this. And it sends a mixed message, which permeates this whole film. Just what is Tarantino’s feeling about this time period? He just throws so much at the screen that it’s hard to really tell if he gets his own movie this time.

On the one hand, we’re given very loud clanging sound effects when we hear the men in chains. That was on purpose. And effective. We’re shown some brutal scenes of slaves being whipped, including Django’s poor wife Broomhilda (played by the appealing Kerry Washington). But then, we’re given scenes like the mask scene and a few others of confusing humor and outright gruesome violence that borderlines cartoonish. It’s a very fine line to walk, and I don’t think Tarantino walked it very well. Certainly not like he did in “Basterds” where there was very little cartoonery and there were no scenes of torture or anything that would muddle the message.

Where the film works best is when the two bounty hunters reach Candie’s plantation (known as Candieland). There is a lot of building tension, broken a few times by an hilarious and welcoming performance by Samuel L. Jackson as a servant named Stephen. DiCaprio is at the top of his game as the gleeful but careful Calvin; and both Django and Schultz know what is on the line in order to save Django’s wife from her master.

I think this film, like “Kill Bill”, and some of Tarantino’s weaker works, suffers from being unfocused. When Tarantino has no clear vision, and just wants to have fun, he creates what I call a “hammock film”. It’s lazy, it’s unsure, and even though it can be entertaining, it just hangs there with no real purpose. I could never really figure out “Django Unchained” as a film. It wants to be a lark, it wants to make a statement sometimes, but it doesn’t come through because Tarantino is too interested in his style.

There’s something I want to contrast, and it’s a bit pretentious, but it involves food. Take the “strudel” scene in “Inglourious Basterds”. And take the “white cake” scene in “Django Unchained”. The strudel represents something–Germany. In it, Shosanna must put on a happy face and…well, EAT Germany. She is forced to enjoy something sweet that makes her sick. It in itself is torture, representing everything she hates. That is good writing. That has substance. The white cake in “Django Unchained” simply serves as a device for a violent shootout. I have no doubt Tarantino meant something with making it “white cake”–but that is exactly all this film really is.

And Tarantino can do a lot better than white cake.

My rating: :?


October 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

This really happened. Keep that in mind when you watch some of the things this film depicts. A trashy sci-fi film, fake at that, saved the lives of 6 people. Now, some of the facts are a bit worked (the script and source material picked wasn’t originally called “Argo”), and I’m sure some of the climactic scenes are dramatized for effect–but director Ben Affleck does a masterful job of putting it all together in a very fun, very engaging, and very absorbing drama.

The story revolves around what is known as the “Canadian Caper”–after the Ayatollah takes power in Iran during the Iran Revolution, the US embassy is stormed and is taken hostage. Six of the members of the US embassy, however, escaped, and took refuge at the house of an ambassador from Canada. The six that have left aren’t accounted for at first; but the Iranians soon notice that there is a discrepancy in numbers. So they will hunt down the six missing and kill them if found. These are the stakes for the US government, and the CIA is brought in. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, in possibly his most low key role) is the one who comes up with the idea of faking a movie production and claiming the 6 are actually Canadian, on location in Iran scouting for filming a science fiction lark that’s basically a rip off of “Star Wars”. He gets this idea one night while talking to his son watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”.

The CIA is hesitant, to say the least, at first. They want to make up a story that the missing six are Canadian, but they are teachers or agricultural industrialists. Mendez points out it’s in the dead of winter in Iran (snow is on the ground), and the only North American school that was in Iran had been closed for almost a year already. Mendez’ plan is “the best bad idea” they have, and so they reluctantly approve it. Fortunately for the CIA, they have a guy in Hollywood that they’ve used before in the past, a make-up artist named John Chambers (gleefully played by the always reliable John Goodman) who happily agrees to help but isn’t quite sure at first how to put it in motion. He enlists the help of a film guru, Lester Siegel (brilliantly played with gusto by Alan Arkin), to bring the project together. They need to make it as “real” as a fake movie as they can–photo ops, a poster, storyboards, a script, and media hype. Somehow they manage to do it (albeit a little too easily as far as the portrayal in the film) and Mendez is assigned to go to Iran, disguised as an associate producer, to meet with the six that are now “part of the film crew”, and get them safely on a plane back to America.

When Mendez gets there, the six escapees are less than impressed with the idea and their covers, and don’t initially trust Mendez (who goes by a cover name). Mendez promises them he’s gotten people home before but admits never in this way. He gives them their cover identities, one being the director, another being a screenwriter, another being a cameraman, etc. They have a day to memorize their covers and know all there is to know about their identities as Canadians, and then they have to go into Tehran to “scout” the location.

It’s a bit less than successful on the scouting, as they’re attacked by some local Iranians who don’t like the look of them; and the housekeeper where they are staying starts to suspect who these six people really are. Tensions begin to mount as the Iranian hostage crisis continues into 1980, and the militants know that six people are missing, and are finding ways to locate their identities.

Meanwhile, Mendez is told by his friend Jack O’Donnell (an Oscar caliber performance by Bryan Cranston), that the CIA has pulled the plug on the “Argo” cover. They’re going to send military to the airport and get them home that way. Mendez doesn’t go for that, and against orders, continues with his plan.

The sequence of getting these six to the airport and the attempt at getting them safely on the plane is exciting, nailbiting, and dripping with suspense. Even though you’re pretty sure you know how this all is going to work out, there are so many close calls (again, most likely dramatized for effect), that you’ll be gripping your seat white knuckled the entire time. This is where Affleck really shows off his chops as a competent and even great film director.

For the most part, Affleck takes a back seat, not a big shot, not overdoing anything, but letting the characters breathe. These six people are the most important in the film, and he lets them be that. His character is the protagonist, but he doesn’t have any big melodramatic uproars or “speeches” that make everyone know that Affleck is at the helm of this whole project. He lets the film speak for itself, and that’s the mark of a true filmmaker.

There are a few little scenes of social commentary about the situation in Iran as well. For a brief moment the camera captures a few Iranians eating at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in downtown Tehran. The camera doesn’t linger, no character makes a mention of it, but Affleck seems to be clearly saying this: they eat our franchised fast food, they entertain the idea of filmmaking in their country, and yet they hate us and want us all dead. Hypocrisy maybe?

Again, he doesn’t push this on us. Only brief glimpses into Iranian lifestyles, and some of the Middle Eastern customs and cultures, and coverage of the demands of the Iranians during the hostage crisis are given. This isn’t a preachy film by any means. But I certainly think there is a message that says “not much has changed” since the crisis ended in 1980. You look at some of the footage, and it is exactly what we still see on the nightly news that goes on over there, especially concerning us, and especially with the recent embassy attack we had only a month ago.

But it’s not all serious, either. The script provides a lot of laugh out loud moments, well delivered by this excellent cast. There are great moments of comic relief just before the suspense can be overbearing.

This is a special film–it gives a deserved nod to the Canadians, to the determination of Mendez, and even the pat on the back from former President Carter who gave the go ahead to keep the mission alive and possible for the six escapees to return safely. This is a quiet film about heroism, but its heroes aren’t big and bulky with witty one-liners and bombastic hi-jinx. Unlike its fake movie counterpart, “Argo” is simply a classy story that says heroes can be soft spoken, but they never give up. And because of that, there’s always hope for a happy ending.

My rating: :D

The Expendables 2

September 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

In the 1980’s, there was an entire subgenre of action/adventure that was dedicated to roided up hunky heroes killing bad guys and loving every minute of it. The kings of this subgenre were definitely Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and to an extent, Bruce Willis. The three of them were icons of machismo in that decade, bringing back the identity of the alpha male in lead roles for blockbuster films. The three of them even ran a restaurant business together–we all have to remember Planet Hollywood. I personally enjoyed the Hollywood Club. The one disappointing thing was, though, the three of them never shared air time in a movie together.

Well, in 2010, Stallone decided it was better late than never to bring them all together in a big, bombastic action lark, “The Expendables”. Unfortunately, the chemistry wasn’t all there yet in that film, and Arnold only shared a brief cameo with Willis and Stallone that was meant to be funny but came off more as awkward. The film itself seemed to take itself too seriously considering what it was supposed to be, which was just a big dumb action picture. There was an unnecessary heavy-handed (and heavy drooled) scene with Mickey Rourke, who was basically evoking his Randy the Ram character from “The Wrestler”, and the characters weren’t fully fleshed out yet.

Here, the formula and chemistry finally comes together. This movie is fun. The cast seems to be more at ease with each other; it helps that they can all speak English (letting Li have a small role in this film was a great choice). The bickering, snarkiness, and good natured ribbing between Stallone and Jason Statham is much more amusing than it was in the first film. The two really seem to like each other more as people in this one. Lundgren is also more entertaining…he was a bit too brooding in the first film. Here, he’s more of a comic foil, and that works fine. I liked the new additions of some younger blood with Liam Hemsworth and Yu Nan. And another thing missing from the first film that fits perfectly here?

Chuck. Norris. Yes, he’s only in a bit role, and he also looks a tad uncomfortable. He does borrow a “Norris”ism from the famous internet meme. But it’s cute because Norris is so genuinely nice that he seems to be enjoying having fun with himself. I would’ve liked to see him perform a roundhouse kick to the face of someone, but that’s OK. We do get a few good ones from the villain, who is very nicely played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Everyone is right at home in this film, and it really comes off the screen so we can just sit back and watch the sparks fly. The plot, which is the weakest element of the film, revolves around a mission to nab something from a safe, and it gets taken by Van Damme and his crew, and the gang has to retrieve it. We never really know why this thing is important, but this is one of those movies that when you start trying to break it down, you’re just going to get lost in plot hole hell. So don’t think about it.

This film is the definition of a popcorn movie. But it seems to be more self aware, and I like that Stallone handed off the directing duties this time. It’s great to see these guys still be abe to carry a film, even though they’re too old to do it without a little help. It’s sad in a nostalgic way–growing up these guys were just awesome. They’re showing they’re mortal, and they’re not exactly aging well. But their sense of humor is in the right place here, although some of the self-referential stuff gets a bit drawn out (the “Rambo” line was useless).

If you’re up for some brainless action candy, this will not disappoint. It’s a good excuse to get out of the house for a few hours, and it’ll put a smile on your face to see that these aging hunks still got it.

My rating: :-)

Up In The Air

January 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Some people have a fear of flying. Some people just have motion sickness. A lot of people hate flying in general. For Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), he not only likes it–he “loves everything you hate about it”. Where is home? Home is here, he says while on a plane. Bingham has loyalty through his airline. He gets gold cards, member rewards, and lots and lots of flight miles. His goal? To reach a certain number of flight miles. He is unmarried, and has no children. And as for his job? He fires people.

But along the way, he is paired with an ambitious cute young girl named Natalie Keener, who has an idea that Ryan’s boss likes–localizing the job and severing their travel habits. Video conferencing is the proposed new wave of going about firing people (which they call, “giving new opportunities”). It would cut costs and corporate loves it. But Ryan doesn’t. He believes it’s better to fire someone face to face, when you have to look them in the eyes and they’re in the room with you. In order for Keener to more understand Ryan’s position, his boss (played by Jason Bateman) thinks it’s a good idea for her to tagalong with him, and be his apprentice. Of course Ryan doesn’t like this idea–but this doesn’t exactly turn into some kind of buddy picture.

The two want different lifestyles, but both come to appreciate each other’s. Keener wants a married life with kids, a home, someplace to settle down. Ryan wants to live care free and unattached to anyone or anything. Things get complicated when he begins a fling with another traveler, Alex (played by Vera Farmiga). Things develop and he wants to bring her into his life.

But life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, and Ryan finds that out the hard way.

The film isn’t really about the lifestyles of travelers or about how a man can live with himself by making a living firing others. It’s really about the detachment and the irony of how a man who has a “loyalty” to something so frivolous and wandering as an airline-to-airline lifestyle. His relationships to others are just as empty, and he pays the price for these save a few examples that actually hindered the theme a bit, in my opinion.

The biggest example is his relationships to his sisters. He has to attend his youngest sister’s wedding and save the wedding as well, by talking the groom-to-be out of having cold feet. Bingham is set up to be a motivational speaker–however, his motivational speech revolves around carrying an “empty backpack” (being a loner, going through life alone and appreciating it). So clearly he has to change his pitch a bit. Something about throwing this into the film didn’t work for me. It seemed to complicate things a bit and was unnecessary. We don’t know enough about his family situation to know how much it would mean for him to be there for them. And by this point we already get that he’s in over his head when it comes to intimately helping someone.

For the most part, however, the film works well. I appreciated how it started as a somewhat funny and charming romantic comedy and becomes a bit darker and more honest toward the end. Director Jason Reitman has shown he has a knack for narrative and pace, and he allows his characters to breathe and live in scenes without dragging down the pace of the film.

The performances are also strong, but the strongest is Anna Kendrick’s as Natalie. Clooney delivers another good performance. And the lifestyle he lives in the film just seems so close to his lifestyle in real life, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for him to slip into this role and completely own it.

Something still seemed to be missing at the end of the film, the way it wrapped up. The theme is there, and there is enough to draw conclusions on what the purpose was and what the filmmakers were trying to say. But there was some fat around the edges that could have been trimmed. It didn’t weigh the film down, per se, but it didn’t make it a completely smooth flight, either.

Sorry. I had to get at least one airplane pun in there. Be glad it was only one.

My rating: :-)