Friday, April 16, 2010

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" Review

"The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." Wow. If you think the title is unorthodox, just wait until you watch the film.

Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) is a detective in post-Katrina New Orleans. After a cripplingly painful back injury, an addiction to pain killers tips the already shady McDonagh over the precipice of debauchery. Soon he is waist deep in addiction and blackmail, simultaneously struggling to keep a handle on his sanity and solve the brutal murder of a Senegalese family. As the investigation continues, McDonagh's dependence escalates, and the story veers further and further from the expected.

German New-Waver Werner Herzog is at the helm, and although the subject matter seems a bit outside his usual territory, he imbues the film with all art-house weirdness fans have come to expect.

The film plays dress-up in the clothes of a sleazy detective-on-the-edge story, but at its heart, Bad Lieutenant is about debasement and chaos eating at the heart of the Big Easy, and at the heart of the titular detective.

I make it a general rule to avoid Nicholas Cage like the plague. However, unhinged detective Terence McDonagh is the perfect outlet for Cage's unabashed insanity. Cage's bug-eyed, hunch-backed absurdity seems to have a finally found a home in Herzog's New Orleans.

With a poorly cut suit and a .357 magnum tucked behind his belt, McDonagh is a protagonist Herzog can be proud of, channeling the driven madness of Herzog's long-time go-to lead, Klaus Kinski. It's undeniably fascinating to watch Cage's flailing descent into his madness, and despite the apparent amorality of many of his actions, McDonogh somehow manages to remain strangely sympathetic.

Solid performances are turned in by the supporting cast, which includes Eva Mendes and the lovably dumpy Val Kilmer.

While all the features are in place, "Bad Lieutenant" is far from Herzog's best. The story is scattered, and Herzog's attempts at visual poetry seem all too often contrived. The breakdancing spirit of a dying criminal is certainly a striking image, but in the context of the work it comes off as sloppy and unusually self-indulgent. It's unclear whether Herzog has become deluded by his own mythic reputation, or he's simply struggling to find his voice in more mainstream work.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is seedy and convoluted, but it boasts some great performances and some mesmerizing Herzogian strangeness. Herzog aficionados and character buffs will find a lot to think about, but casual viewers should beware: this port of call is not for the faint of heart.

Grade C+

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" review

Let me get this out of the way. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is one of the best animated films I've ever seen.It does what all films seek to do, by creating a unique and appealing world, and populating that world with a wealth of, for lack of a better term, fantastic characters.

The film is based on a book by Roald Dahl, whose works include "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The BFG," and "The Witches." The major plot points of the film are roughly corollary to those of the novel, but the film is a Wes Anderson joint, through and through. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a reformed bird thief turned newspaper man, who despite a devotion to his wife and son, yearns for the excitement of his glory days. When the fox family moves into their new home (tree) near three prominent farms, Fox decides to embark upon one last heist.The Fox family dynamic is altered by the arrival of Mrs. Fox's nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) who lodges in the Fox home while his father battles "double-pneumonia." Fox's twleve-fox-year-old son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is jealous of Kristofferson's talents and stature, and his father's blatant admiration thereof. As Fox squares off against the three sinister farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, and tries to hide his illicit activities from his suspicious wife, (Meryl Streep) Ash struggles to outshine Kristofferson and makes his father proud.

The plot is whimsical and exciting, but as in all of Anderson's work, what really shines are the characters. Each is beautifully animated and brought to life by wonderful voice work by a cast including Bill Murray, Adrian Brody, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, and Michael Gambon.

The dialogue is hip and crisp without being gimmicky, and the timing of the interactions is pitch-perfect. There are some poignant moments, as well as some that made me laugh aloud.You'll find yourself quoting this movie for days. It's rife with brilliant and bizarre one-liners.

Even if you've never seen any of Anderson's work, including "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "Rushmore," you'll immediately identify his offbeat aesthetic. Fantastic Mr. Fox is made using stop motion animation, but Anderson's lovable visual trademarks are all here - deliberate and methodical cinematography, vintage style, vibrant color, and prominent on-screen typography. The construction of the characters and sets is charming and novel, and every frame features a stimulating palette of color and texture.

Rounding out the experience is a raucously excellent soundtrack, featuring The Rolling Stones, The Wellington, and Burl Ives. There's even an original tune by the on-screen avatar of Jarvis Cocker. The mix of off-kilter animation and washy 60s rock is a pure delight.

I don't have much in terms of summation here, guys. Every element of the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is fantastic, and the final product is nearly without flaw. It's poignant, funny, and a joy to behold. Simply put, it's one of Anderson's best. See this movie, folks. You won't regret it.

Grade A

Friday, February 26, 2010

Shutter Island review

The Gist:
"Shutter Island" is based on Dennis Lehane's novel of the same name. The narrative follows Federal Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), who travel to the titular islet to investigate the mysterious escape of a patient from a Ashecliffe, a hospital for the criminally insane.
As the investigation unfolds, Teddy's traumatic past is slowly revealed, and it becomes apparent that the staff of Ashecliffe Hospital know much more than they're telling. It doesn't help that the two head physicians are played by Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, who rank (among some of my ex-girlfriends) as some of the most potentially sinister people in all the world.

What's good:
Scorcese, but that's no surprise. He's been in the game so long that he can out-direct most of his competitors with his eyes closed. It's fun to see him apply his A-list talent to some satisfyingly B-movie material.
Every technical aspect of the film speaks to Scorcese's mastery of the medium. He knows exactly where to place the pieces and how get them moving in the right directions.
Also worthy of mention is our Li'l Leo. True, his facial hair looks like an arts and crafts project gone awry (too much glue, too little glitter), and he often appears to be playing dress-up out of dad's closet. However, DiCaprio is reaching the point in his career at which even the most vicious of naysayers can no longer legitimately deny his talent. The character he creates is sympathetic, complex, and unfailingly watchable. Incidentally, his German isn't bad.
Along with great lead performances, each and every ancillary character is nearly perfect. Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson turn in some especially great work.

What's bad:
"Shutter Island" works very hard to misdirect the audience. In doing so, it sometimes gets ahead of itself. While some contrivances are made more understandable by some developments late in the film, there are some bothersome superfluities. Cinematic sleight-of-hand is essential in creating mystery, but so many moving parts sometimes make "Shutter Island" feel a little sloppy.

What's ugly:
A whole lot. The island is full of scary, bloody people. The winner has to be Jackie Earle Haley, who defends his title as the creepiest little dude in the movie business. Bruised and disfigured, he makes his single scene one of the film's most memorable and disturbing. As the conclusion comes into focus, the brilliant details of the scene become even more profound.

The Bottom Line:
"Shutter Island" has so many outstanding elements, but never quite reaches the excellence promised by the talent involved. In the end, it's like watching a group of Formula 1 superstars cruising around in Pow-Pow-Power-Wheels sports cars. These folks are experts and the pedal is on the floor, but the vehicle just can't bring them up to speed.
It's not Scorcese's best work, but as thrillers go, it's solidly above-average. Well constructed and featuring uniformly excellent performances, "Shutter Island" is popcorn film making at its best.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Best Chat in the History of 'Merica

me: Sarah, did you know that last week, my friend and I bought 180 dollars worth of soccer apparel? Of course you didn't.

Sarah: I did.

me: YOU DID?!

Sarah: Of course.

me: Oh.

Sarah: Also. Weren't you going to offer to sell it to me?

me: Yeah,but here's the thing, I told you once, and I told you twice- I DO NOT deal in yen. Ever. It's JUST policy, Clark. Nothing personal. So if you can scrounge up some Euro,'ell, I'll even take Rupees. But NOT. Yen. Ever.

Sarah: Why are you racist? Against Asians? And please don't call them Japs anymore.
That was so 1943.

me: You WOULD make it about race. That's just like you. It's got nothing to do with race. It's all about perceived value.
If it takes me 40,000 of something to pay for a bag of chocolate skittles, I might as well be paying with bellybutton lint!

Sarah: Please don't try that again. Bellybutton lint is not a valid currency.
I have finally learned.

me: Yeah. That's one of those lessons you have to learn the hard way. I've been in the business long enough to know...and another thing - will you get your Private Investigator friend off my back?!
I know he wants in on the fireworks game but he's gotta be patient.Asians are poor when it comes to expedited shipping.I mean, ya know, the countries. Not the people.
I got nothing against the japs--ER, uh, japanese americans...the japanese.I have nothing against the japanese

Sarah: Nothing against them but resentment.When are you going to stop blaming them for your circus failures?

me: My circus failures? MY circus failures?! We both know that Ling-Ling was working for the Irish and that that line was not secure from the start.
And frankly, I think it's cruel of you to bring that up. You know my thorax still keeps me up at night.
Lawdy, between you and the IRA I'll never live this down.

Sarah: Oh I forgot to tell you.I now work for the IRA.My code name is Ling-Ling.
And it always has been.

me: I thought you were dead.Oh Ling-Ling. I'm so sorry. How can i make it up to you?
I've always loved you. From the start.
Ling-Ling...did the child survive? OUR BABEH?!

Sarah: Yes. She is tall now.I mean really tall.10' tall.She works in the circus.
Just like her ole dad.Did.

me: Is she tall? JUST tall? Or does she have the unfortunate disfigurements that so often accompany the tallness?

Sarah: She is beautiful.Even her third eye is lovely. Blue and green and shiny.
shining, rather. Just like the sea you left us by. When you deserted us for a trifle.
I couldn't believe you'd left me for a dessert.

me: I know, I know. I feel awful...mmmm feelwaful...falafel...but dear. did you TASTE the trifle? I mean, it was life changing trifle...

Plus I thought you were dead.

Sarah: You're always saying that when it's convenient for you. Like that time you thought I "died" in the grocery store when really I just didn't want you to buy that bag of frozen chicken wings because we already had three at home?
You know, some women's men tell them that they are second in their lives only to God.
In your life, I'm second to taste treats.

me: Oh Ling-Ling, you were never second. Third, in fact. Gotta remember fantasy curling. But how am I supposed to know you're alive when you don't even high five me after I beat the Frogger highscore at the YMCA?I mean, how can I even FEEL like a man without a high five every once in awhile? I mean, how many headaches can one person have? And why does that even interfere with highfiving? If I knew you wanted a high five, I would high five you from my death bed? I guess that's what I get for marrying an O'Rourke.

Sarah: Alright.Now you've gone too far. Just because the O'Rourkes have a genetic predisposition to having fingers on our foreheads doesn't mean you need to be getting all nasty about my family.We have good genes!
It's the O'Rourke in me that made me so musical! It's the O'Rourke in me that made me a good jigger! It's the O'Rourke in me that enables me to whistle with my ear that favorite tune of yours, the one that can make your calves unknot and your cows come home.

Ben: You know what really hurts? I don't know if i even WANT my cows to come home anymore.

Sarah: I hate to say it, Benxander, but you are the fairweather farmer
you promised yourself you'd never become.

me: I have become so many things I used to hate. The casual sportcoat over a trendy graphic tee. The reliance on predictive text. what have I become? A fairweather farmer, I guess. See, even my memory is going? And the question marks? The superfluous question marks?Sometimes I wish I died in that grocery store instead of you.

Sarah: I could make that happen, Ben. I could kill you in a grocery store. Then we would both be dead.

me: And all those chicken fingers would go to waste - WAIT -I'm sure our ten foot daughter could knock em out.

Sarah: Better to waste than on the waist as Papa O'Rourke always says.Our 10' daughter can do everything. She's magical. And imaginary. In that way, she takes after you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Little Manhattan review

Spring is set to spring, and love is in the air. In Cache County, so are pollutants (it's an orange day.) Is there a difference? You decide.Two things are for certain: Valentine's Day is almost upon us, and it's rom-com time.

Somehow, I completely missed “Little Manhattan” when it hit theaters in 2006. It's a stealthy little movie; I only recently discovered its charm with the help of friends.

The brilliance of “Little Manhattan” is its independence from typical rom-com features. I am not opposed, in any way, to either romance or comedy. However, slap a hyphen between the former and the latter, and chances are, you'll get neither. Today's so-called romance comedies are increasingly crass, and decreasingly substantial.

“Little Manhattan” skillfully strips away some of the arbitrary trappings found in “adult” depictions of love, and in doing so, creates a rare and wonderful film that lives up to the promises of its genre.

The film tells the story of Gabe, a typical Manhattanite, who in the 11th year of his life is blindsided by love. The object of his affection is Rosemary Telesco, a classmate and budding karate master.

As Gabe learns from the thrilling yet torturous new experience, he turns to his father Adam for advice.

Adam mentors Gabe in the nonsense of love, and begins to ponder the shortcomings in his own relationship with his emotionally estranged wife Leslie.

Pretty early on, it's easy to see exactly where “Little Manhattan” is heading, but you'll enjoy the trip.Mark Levin makes a strong directorial debut. Levin was a co-producer on television's “The Wonder Years,” and “Little Manhattan” shares in much of what made the series so appealing. The tone is warm and whimsical, and there is a clear sense of emotional morality. It occasionally veers into the realm of manipulative, but some funny moments and the familiar absurdity of Gabe's inner dialogue keep it from becoming too sugary.

If you have some time this weekend, give “Little Manhattan” a chance. If you've got somebody, share it with them. If you don't, share it with yourself. Either way, you'll find plenty to love, and plenty to hope for.

In a cinematic culture that teaches us to believe that relationships are about sex, or secrets, or meeting the parents, “Little Manhattan” reminds us that sometimes, love is about knowing when to hold somebody's hand.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Let The Right One In review

Despite crushing loneliness and a complete lack of satisfying social interactions, working nights is not without its advantages. It affords me plenty of time to stare into space, with ample time left over to keep my international film-viewing resumé up to date.

The most recent addition to the laughably voluminous list is a Swedish film called Låt Den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In.) In the loosest sense, Let The Right One In is a vampire movie. Which is to say, there's a vampire in it. It could just as easily be described as a movie about friendship, revenge, or loyalty. This complexity is what makes the film so excellent. A conspicuous dedication to character gives the filmmakers the ability to innovate within a seemingly drained genre. It differs from clichéd portrayals in important and unique ways, but manages to create an experience that is both familiar and refreshing.

The story follows Oscar, a lonely outcast who struggles with a fractured family, physical weakness, and constant torment from school bullies. One evening Oscar meets Eli, a strange little gal who, by her very nature, relates to Oscar's isolation. Slowly but surely, the pair become friends, with Oscar providing the affection and understanding that Eli craves, and receiving Eli's wisdom and protection in return. The relationship is quiet and haltingly sweet. Even as Eli's nature becomes apparent and the blood begins to flow - in great supply - the interactions retain an affecting innocence.

The film keeps its characters in sight from the first frame to the impressive conclusion, a feat essentially unmatched by American equivalents.

The characters are certainly at the heart of the film, but the entire production is a joy to behold. It has one of the most beautiful opening shots I've seen in years, and in true Scandinavian fashion, the quality of cinematography is marvelous throughout. The stark Swedish landscape is a perfect backdrop, used skillfully to emphasize Oscar and Eli's seclusion. The special effects are tastefully minimal, often chilling but never distracting. Best of all, nobody sparkles.

By stripping itself of the fatigued trappings so often seen in vampire cinema and literature, Let The Right One In succeeds in new and exciting ways. True film lovers really couldn't ask for a better gift for the Holiday season. Do yourself a favor and get cozy with these Swedes.

They may not be able to defend you from H1N1, but they should help dispel the the worst symptoms of New Moon Fever. Team Eli 4EVR.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

This Is It review

This Is It is a documentary about Michael Jackson and company preparing for the King of Pop's
ill-fated final concert run in London. The film's cited aim is to show MJ "Like You've Never Seen Him Before," but in reality it only solidifies two prevalent suppositions about The Gloved One:

First, that Michael Jackson was the quintessential popular performer of our time. Second, that Michael Jackson was an undeniably peculiar fellow.

It's difficult to write a film review for This Is It, because in the strictest sense, it's not really
a film at all. While it falls under the documentary category, the sparsity of annotative content makes it a bleak example of such. More than anything else, This Is It is a shrine to the achievement and legacy of a boy from Gary, Indiana.

In terms of technical production, the work is excellent. The majority of the film consists of rehearsal performances of Michael's many hits, (Beat It, Thriller, Billie Jean, The Way You Make Me Feel, etc.)
Most of the numbers feature compiled footage from several different rehearsals. The footage is excellently and unobtrusively edited, and it's fascinating to see the production at various stages of completion, as well as MJ's skill for improvisation. Some of the music is in the process of being perfected, and Michael mentions several times that he's trying to save his voice, but the power and variety of the Jackson canon remains impressive.

Canned interviews throughout are filled with accolades for Michael's energy and humanity, but the footage exposes Michael's lack of any identity independent of his music. Although his musical vision and understanding are apparent, he is often completely helpless in articulating it. His communication is fragmentary and platitudinous, and he seems unable to relate in any pertinent personal way to the cast and crew. This isolation is only exaggerated by the constant and obnoxious pandering of Kenny Ortega, who was Jackson's stage director as well as the director of the film.

The film is at its best when it avoids trying to render forced warmth and instead focuses on Michael's unique talent and penchant for entertainment. This Is It portrays Michael Jackson in all his myth and mystery. It forces us to understand him in the only way in which he can ever be fully understood: as a performer.
It lets him live onstage, connecting with humanity through his music and movement, a feat he is unable to achieve through any other means. He is in command of the very world that we, the eternal audience, both created and forced him to inhabit. Under the lights of This Is It, we see and remember the best of a troubled and misunderstood human being. What better eulogy could any of us ask for?