October 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

NOTE: I am reviewing this film after seeing it on IMAX 3-D. I recommend this be the way the film is seen, to get the ultimate experience of it.

I’ve always enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s films. From “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to “Children of Men”, I like that he seems to do things his way and doesn’t back down from studio pressure or anything. His films are fresh and honest, and aren’t afraid to be tragic and dark. He carries this tradition on in the big budget “Gravity”, a film that is not only an incredible visual experience, but also a pretty incredible emotional one as well.

We are introduced immediately to a space mission already in progress between veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a bio-medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). They are operating at two opposite places of a career: Ryan at the beginning, Matt at the end. He waxes poetic about old stories to Houston Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris), and teases Dr. Stone while listening to lazy, irritatingly twangy country music. Then, the mission is abruptly aborted when Houston informs them that during a Russian missile strike to destroy an out of service satellite, space debris is headed their way and they’re ordered back to the Hubble. But Dr. Stone moves a little too slowly and they can’t all get back in when the debris hits, knocking the Hubble out of commission and killing everyone on the shuttle. Dr. Stone and Kowalski are the only survivors, and their communication with Houston gets cut off, leaving them stranded.

But they’re not completely out of options. There is an ISS (International Space Station) around them with an escape pod, and they can make it there before the debris comes at them again. The ISS is Russian as well, but according to NASA, all escape pods run basically the same. While on their way to the ISS, Dr. Stone is running out of oxygen, but Kowalski assures her she can still live in the suit if she takes smaller breaths (“Sip, don’t gulp. It’s wine, not beer.”). He tries to get personal information out of her; but she is very closed about herself, even though she does reveal that she had a daughter who died in an accident at school one day very suddenly during recess.

Once they find the ISS, however, things don’t turn for the better for them. They find that the ISS has been damaged, and the crew has already vacated, leaving only one pod behind that has already deployed its parachute. This leaves the pod useless to return to Earth. Again, Kowalski has a plan. There’s another space station a little ways away (“It’s a Sunday drive”) owned by the Chinese. Again, their pods work the same way so they should be able to get back home using that. En route, however, Stone’s leg gets caught on one of the parachute cords, and she can only let Kowalski drift off into space to untangle herself. He tells her to let him go, and she’s alone to try and find the Chinese space station.

The remainder of the film is Stone’s personal sojourn, an allegory of sorts of re-birth and resurrection. There are many symbols, some overt and some subtle, and the film can certainly be seen as a metaphor for the cycle of life. Kowalski resonates with Stone, and there’s even a glimpse of him again, giving her hope that she’s not really all alone out there.

The film thrives on pulse pounding suspense, especially during the chaotic space debris sequences and when she’s facing a crisis in the Russian Soyuz. But where the film is strongest is in the quiet moments when Stone is left to face herself. There’s a wonderfully painful and emotional sequence in which Stone wants to give up and let go. She reaches communication with a random person (possibly Chinese) who has picked up her frequency from his house. He can’t understand her, and calls her “Mayday” (since that’s what she keeps repeating), and she listens to hear a dog in the background, and the sound of a baby. She finds comfort in this, because even though it’s remote, it’s a connection to life–something she has lost a connection with both literally and figuratively.

Obviously, she does not give up. And all of this builds to an incredibly intense climactic ending that really keeps you clinging to your seat. I won’t reveal how it ends, of course. But at 91 minutes, you won’t be waiting that long for it. And you’ll be so engrossed in all the goings-on you won’t even feel the time.

The performance by Sandra  Bullock is one for the ages, and will certainly come with an Oscar nomination. And well deserved. All in all, is film will make you feel like you just went through all of it with Dr. Stone and Kowalski right next to you, and that’s a great achievement by Cuaron. It’s one of the few films, like “Avatar”, where 3-D actually makes you feel “a part” of the whole experience.

My rating: :D


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 Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan rescued one of the most self-destructive franchises in movie history when he resurrected Batman in “Batman Begins”. What began as a promising run with Tim Burton in 1989 devolved quickly once it was taken over by Joel Schumacher in the mid-90’s; and the culminating film, “Batman & Robin”, promised that the franchise had completely fallen apart. After that film, I think we were all sick of Batman. At least, we were sick of *that* Batman. But, Batman as a symbol of justice, as a comic book hero, is still intriguing. The costume, the super rich alter ego, and the inner struggle of the character, are still something we yearn to see.

And so, Christopher Nolan, who at the time was still making his way into the Hollywood mainstream, rebooted the whole thing and started from scratch. At the time, we didn’t have an onslaught of comic book movies every year, so it didn’t feel as much as a saturated genre (as, say, watching “The Amazing Spider-Man” did). And Nolan took a serious approach to Batman, someone who wanted to do a character study as well as an action film. The result, “Batman Begins”, was a smashing success. Finally we saw Batman as a real character. The film was dark and brooding much like Burton’s 1989 version; but we learned so much more about Bruce Wayne and Batman in this film. With champion efforts by good actors like Michael Caine and Chrisitan Bale, this Batman movie was thorough, thought-provoking, and sensational.

His follow up was one of the biggest and best comic book epics brought on screen with “The Dark Knight” in 2008. Though that movie was surrounded by the hype of the passing of Heath Ledger, the film stood as a fantastic, big scale action thriller with one of the best “villain” performances in film history. It would be hard to top an achievement such as “The Dark Knight.”

This time, Nolan tries his best with “The Dark Knight Rises”, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us with big explosions and massively complex action sequences. The result? Well, I said it’d be hard to top “The Dark Knight”. And, it certainly doesn’t come close. In fact, this to me was the weakest of the 3 films. It spends so much time on the action and too much time on corporate politics, and so little on character, that this was an imbalance.

“Rises” begins big with an escape by the villain Bane (played by Tom Hardy), a hulking cross between a roided up bomber pilot and Darth Vader who has a curious wit that could be appreciated if we could understand what he was saying half the time. While the voice is a bit bass amplified and broadcast through surround sound, sometimes it’s so muddled that you just have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Other times, his voice goes so over the top it’s hard to tell if he’s aware of how silly he sounds. But when Bane throws his hands, it’s no laughing matter. There’s no question that he is the most physically imposing villain that Batman has faced in the entire movie series, dating back to the 60’s.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is bankrupt after a venture with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who seemingly comes out of nowhere to help Wayne Enterprises, and has invested in a fusion power project that has ultimately cost him his fortune, and his board removes him from the company. She and Wayne share a brief romance; but there isn’t a lot of time spent on their relationship, and perhaps it’s for the best in the end.

As for Batman, he’s retired. Wayne suffered an injury that has left him a bit crippled. This is taken advantage of by another adversary, who is Selina Kyle, or, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). She’s a burglar who only steals from rich people…like Robin Hood. Only with much more sex appeal. There are two sides to this character, though, and she is actually one of the stronger ones in the film thanks to a brilliant performance by Hathaway. There is a vulnerability inside her; but she “masks” it (ahem) with a hard edge that says she can’t be manipulated. Wayne somewhat sympathizes with her; she feels something for him as well, but she just can’t show it.

Batman does make a comeback, however, as expected. Otherwise I guess the movie would’ve only been 45 minutes long and called “The Dark Knight Says I’d Rather Not”. He’s not as strong as Bane, however, and routinely gets dominated by Bane’s strength and agility. The reason Bane is so similar to Batman physically is because he was trained by the same man, Ra’s al Ghul (reprised by Liam Neeson) in the League of Shadows. Bane was excommunicated, and is seen as Batman as a “rogue”. But Bane wins out, and Batman is cast into the same prison that Bane grew up in, with his only hope of escaping is by climbing out of a hole and leaping to freedom. Allegedly, Bane is the only one who could ever do this, and it was when he was a child.

The city of Gotham is at Bane’s mercy, and he destroys a part of it with explosives in the ground that erupt and blow up a football stadium (one of the more breathtaking sequences in the film), and some of the bridges. It also encases the entire police force underground, leaving the city to a Lord of the Flies-like Martial Law. However, this won’t last very long as he has coveted a nuclear bomb after releasing the core from its fusion power chamber, that will detonate in 5 months. Whomever programmed a time bomb for that long either forgot to carry the one, or is a very patient madman.

The only cops that are above ground are the disgraced former Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and a bright young cop named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Blake still believes in the Batman even though he’s part of a police force that was after him when Batman was still capering in Gotham City.

All of these stories meshing together do make for an ok 165 minute lark. There’s never a moment of boredom in the film because it’s packed with so many intense sequences and climactic action scenes. It does not wear you out. However, because of the scale of the epic, and a drop off in character development, there are some lulls in the storylines that leave some very wide open plot holes. I’m all for suspending disbelief, but this really tries your patience on more than a few occasions, especially at the end. Then it goes beyond suspending disbelief to the point where you have to damn near expel it. Also, Bane is not nearly as interesting or consistent as the Joker was. Granted, it would be hard to top Heath Ledger’s performance. But Bane really doesn’t have much of a personality; and, as I mentioned before, it’s hard to understand a word he’s saying sometimes. Hardy does as much with his eyes and body language to convey his meaning; but the overpowering inability to hear his words really hurts the performance. I blame this on post production and Nolan’s stubbornness more than Hardy’s acting chops, however.

The film’s pace is fine, and it does have some superior effects; on balance, I would have still recommended it…had it not been for the ending, as I mentioned above. Nolan has always seemed to rise above standard movie cliches and even with the somewhat bloated “The Dark Knight”, he still told a compelling story rich in story and character, and here I just felt left out. But beyond that, which I could still forgive, the ending is not only cliched, but ultimately impossible. And in its final shot, more groan inducing than moving. Nolan is an intelligent writer and filmmaker; but here, he seems to take the easy way out to appease the audience. I would’ve expected a more complicated or compromising climax out of such a grandiose trilogy. Instead, it’s very predictable and relies so heavily on your belief in comic book hero magic that it just felt out of place in a film series full of so much…reality. And that’s what had separated Nolan’s Batman series from the others.

This is still a strong trilogy; in time, I may forgive the film for its flaws. For now, I can only give a mixed review and say I would’ve liked to see more out of a filmmaker I respect as much as Christopher Nolan.

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: :-)

Burn After Reading

September 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Movies

The Coen brothers never cease to amaze me, and have been two of the most prominent filmmakers this generation. Ever since their breakthrough debut, “Blood Simple”, they’ve not only made some of the most intriguing, intense and deep-thinking films in the last 25 years, but also some of the most gut-busting hilarious comedies as well. It’s hard to believe sometimes that the same guys who made something as devastating as “Miller’s Crossing” or “Fargo” could also make screwball romps like “Raising Arizona” and thoughtful cerebral knee-slappers like “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski”. Well, you can add “Burn After Reading” to their already stunning resumes. Leaning more toward romp than cerebral, “Burn After Reading” is a fast paced, 95 minute treat that snaps, crackles and pops and is welcomed into the post-summer doldrums at the box office. Hard to say how much money it will make, but it is as entertaining as anything I saw during the summer.

The film focuses on a bevy of characters: Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, as extremely hyper active and positive thinking personal trainers at a gym known as Hard Bodies; George Clooney as a womanizing married man who meets women on the Internet and also maintains a relationship with a mistress played by Tilda Swinton who is married to–and trying to divorce–the main focus of the plot of the film, and one of the funniest roles I’ve seen him play in his career, John Malkovich. Malkovich plays a CIA agent who is let go in the beginning of the film, and decides to make a memoir while he is out of work, while his wife makes the bread working as a pediatrician. The plot thickens when a disc carrying information about Malkovich’s financial files falls into the hands of Pitt and McDormand because the administrative assistant of Swinton’s character’s divorce lawyer accidentally left it last time she was at Hard Bodies. Meanwhile, McDormand’s character, Linda, who is trying to get her insurance company through the gym to pay for 4 separate cosmetic surgeries, decides to blackmail Malkovich’s character, Ozzie Cox, thinking she’s got major classified information about him. Cox, not knowing that his wife is trying to divorce him anyway, has no idea how this disc came about, and doesn’t buy that the blackmailers really have anything on him. Linda tries going to the Russians, and it gets even crazier once she brings Pitt’s character, Chad, deeper into it by making him break into the Cox’s house. Linda is also the next victim of Clooney’s adulterating as she is searching for love on the Internet, and with Clooney being involve with the Cox as well, things get pretty dicey.

That’s just a taste of how involved this plot is. It’s written so well and drawn out so succinctly and logically that you totally believe everything that’s happening. The other thing is, the movie is laced with the theme about trust and how things can get so out of hand so quickly because of ignorance, greed, and ineptness. The Coen brothers treat the script with care and don’t beat you over the head with exposition, nor do they overdo the zaniness. Pitt is very funny as he dances to his kickin’ iPod selections, Clooney is incredibly charming as he deals with some strange paranoias, thinking people are following him all the time, and always making sure after having sex that he can “get a run in”. McDormand is hysterical, and sometimes just her facial reactions to what’s going on make you chuckle. As I said previously, Malkovich is at the top of his game. It’s probably the most vulgar I’ve seen him, and that’s part of why he is so funny in this film.

This movie works on every level and is a very entertaining movie to catch on a lazy Saturday or Sunday. If you’re more into home entertainment, I highly recommend picking up a copy at your local (diminishing) video rental store and grab some popcorn and soda, and settle in.

It’s a fun ride, even if it’s short.

My rating: :smile: