Monday, April 27, 2009

The Soloist

At first glance, The Soloist is exactly the type of film that the Academy seems to crave. It features an Academy Award winner and nominee in Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., so, when the release was delayed from late 2008 (prime Oscar season) to early 2009, there didn't seem to be much hope that this film was going to be any good. However, I was still anticipating this film, primarily because of the actors, although Joe Wright has proved himself a competent director with Atonement, as well as Pride & Prejudice. Early in the year it can be a bit slow on the cinematic front, so this was definitely one I had my eye on.

It's a true story of an unlikely friendship between a schizophrenic street musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx), and a workaholic journalist, Steve Lopez (Downey), whose personal life is in shambles. Essentially, Lopez was out looking for a story and heard Nathaniel on the street, playing his beloved Beethoven on a violin with only two strings. Nathaniel claimed to have studied at Julliard, and after confirming this, Lopez writes a series of articles about Nathaniel that inspires the entire city. After much exasperation on Lopez's part in trying to fix Nathaniel in order to redeem his own life, he realizes that all Nathaniel needs is a friend.

The film gives us a look at the homeless situation on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and almost feels like a documentary at times, but this serves no real purpose other than creating sympathy for Nathaniel and subsequent puzzlement when he declares his wish to stay on the streets. There are also many scenes displaying Nathaniel's devastating struggle with mental illness, each of which is very heavy handed, although I don't know how else you could depict schizophrenia. In this lies a real hopelessness, that this talented individual could be beaten down at every turn in his life by this seemingly treatable condition.

It's not hard to believe this is a true story because nothing really happens in the movie. Lopez even notes at the in voice over at the end of the film that Nathaniel is in pretty much the same shape as he was before they'd met, and I'm not convinced Lopez himself underwent any form transformation, no matter how subtle, other than maybe becoming slightly less selfish. It makes it a little more interesting to know that these guys are still alive and living in LA in pretty much the same situations as they were in the film, but there isn't enough arch to make me care too much about either one of them. Overall, The Soloist is a mediocre film with interesting performances and artistic cinematography, but weighed down by a sluggish, uninspired narrative.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

State of Play

I was a bit reluctant about going to see this film, and actually didn't really consider it until all the good reviews came pouring in. While the cast is very impressive, the trailer looked and felt like a cookie-cutter thriller. I finally went with my fiancé to see it last night, and it did not disappoint. In hindsight, I shouldn't be surprised. State of Play is a thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald (who helmed The Last King of Scotland in 2006), but more importantly, Tony Gilroy worked on the screenplay, and if you read my review of Duplicity, you know how I feel about his writing. I think his work here in State of Play is right up there with Michael Clayton and the Bourne trilogy, truly impressive stuff.

The film, which is an adaptation of the BBC mini-series of the same name, follows
Washington Post reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) as he tries to unravel the mystery behind the murders of a petty thief and a pizza delivery guy and the supposed suicide of a political aid. The aid is a young woman who was working on a case for Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) involving a huge global defense contractor who was essentially fighting for its corporate life against a congressional hearing implicating improprieties, with billions of dollars on the line. Rep. Collins, it turns out, was college roommates with Cal, who also happened to be romantically involved, at one point, with the congressman's wife (Robin Wright Penn). This made for an interesting love triangle, not an overbearing or annoying element of the film at all. There was also a sub-plot involving the financial crisis of the Washington Post, and their need to sell newspapers at all costs in order to stay afloat in this high-tech world of instant news via the internet. Enter Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a primary blogger on the papers web-site, representing the "new school" of journalism. McAdams brings a young, pretty face to this crowd of seasoned vets, and doesn't hold it back in any way, although her character is not the strongest part of the narrative. There are also some great scenes between Crowe and Helen Mirren, who plays the editor that, while sympathetic to Cal's stubborn, "old school" methodology, is willing to do whatever it takes to sell papers.

The story keeps moving at a fairly rapid pace throughout, although it never gets confusing or disorienting. There are several moments in the film that create such great suspense that it reminded me of the feeling I had while watching No Country for Old Men, although there is no other similarities between these films. I think the only time I was really pulled out the story was towards the end, when one of the characters does something that to me completely contradicted the nature and reality of that character's behavior up to that point, purely to serve the plot and wrap things up nicely. It didn't ruin the movie for me by any means, just knocked it down a notch from where it could have been. Another item of note, Macdonald caps everything off with a very cool and informative closing credit sequence that hopefully will inspire similar treats in other films.

State of Play was a very enjoyable, adult thriller, which is sadly a genre that seems to be losing popularity. In recent years I can only think of a few films, such as Michael Clayton and Breach (whose author, Billy Ray, also helped pen State of Play), that were as good and well written. Not to mention, this is such a impressive collection of actors, including, in addition to those I've mentioned, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, and even Viola Davis (much celebrated recently, for her few scenes in Doubt) in a small role. I highly recommend this film and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Monsters vs Aliens

I'm going to get away from my structured, four paragraph review a little bit with this one, and maybe with other movies for which I do not have a lot to say. This movie is very enjoyable, funny, and perfect for kids. I didn't get to see it with him, but my four-year-old son loved it, and it was fun recapping some of his favorite parts on the phone with him. Monsters vs Aliens is full of cute, lovable characters and empowering themes of independence as well as friendship and teamwork. Reese Witherspoon does great voice work as the main character Susan, and the entire cast is spot on for the most part, including some hilarious bits from Seth Rogen, voicing a character essentially made of Jell-O, with no brain (not a real stretch for him I feel... Just kidding!).

While not as groundbreaking as a Pixar film typically is, the visuals are quite good. The 3D work was a bit gimmicky, as expected considering its target audience, but still very well done. I do not necessarily like the fact that almost every animated film coming out now is in 3D, but it did work well in Monsters vs Aliens. If you have kids, or just enjoy lighthearted animated movies, you should check this out for sure.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Observe and Report

Observe and Report is the second film from writer/director Jody Hill, also responsible for the awkwardly hilarious Foot Fist Way, starring the rapidly rising star Danny McBride. McBride has a small role in Observe and Report, but this film is pretty much a star vehicle for Seth Rogen; a chance for him too show some serious acting chops, albeit in a ridiculous role.

Rogen is perfectly cast as mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt, a misfit egomaniac who lets the little power and responsibility he does have get to his head on a regular basis. He taunts and humiliates the other guards under his command, who don't seem to mind; in fact they actually look up to him for some reason. The obvious reason is that they, like him, are complete idiots, devoid of any of reason or notion of reality whatsoever. The scenario makes for some very contrived and often hilarious circumstances in which these clowns abuse their power to the point of absurdity. The second in command is played by the talented Michael Pena, who is frankly terrible in this role; a Hispanic caricature that is neither believable nor funny. Anna Faris plays Brandi, and is quite good at being a completely despicable slut, who also happens to be the object of Ronnies undying love and affection. Ray Liotta steps in as the prototypical, dickhead policeman who cock-blocks Ronnie, while simultaneously trying to get him killed.

All of this is well and good considering the supposed genre, until about the mid-point in the film where the film takes a turn for the dark and sadistic. We learn that Ronnie is bi-polar, was raised by a sex crazed, drunken lunatic of a mother, and then we subsequently get to watch him get beat to a pulp by about fifteen policemen. To top it off, we get to see his dreams to become a police officer completely crushed after failing the psychological exam, which Liotta's character then rubs in his face to the listening ears of one of his police buddies hiding in the office closet hoping for some cheap laughs. Most of this is handled with the comedic intuition and timing of a Gus Van Sant movie. I found the entire second half of this movie to be offensively not funny, and was downright disturbed at the maniacal laughter coming from some of the audience members sitting close to me.

As I mentioned before, Seth Rogen is quite good in this role, completely immersed in the insanity. Critics referred to it as a comedic Taxi Driver, and while Ronnie does share a similar character arch with Travis Bickle, there is nothing funny about any of it. Nothing. If they had chosen to remake Taxi Driver in this setting while playing it straight, it might have succeeded. The comedy did not fit. This is not a monumental genre transcending film, rather a confused and disturbing one. It's been mentioned by others, but I must say that my true feelings for this film were in fact summed up by the cop who came out of the closet while Rogen was receiving the bad news about his future as a policeman. "I'm sorry. I thought this was going to be funny, but it's just sad."


The latest film by Greg Mottola is vastly different from his previous directing effort, Superbad, although it contains come of the same sweetness and nostalgia experienced in the later moments of that movie. The main difference is that Greg also wrote Adventureland, and there's a real sense of personal experience coming through which adds to the richness of this distinctive look at a pivotal period in a young man's life. Yes, this is a "coming of age" film, but one that avoids many of the clichés that plague the genre and offers a look into the world of a few, unique, nuanced characters at that critical point where childhood meets adulthood.

The movie opens at a college party right before the graduation of our leading man, James (Jesse Eisenberg), and I have to admit, from those first few lines of dialog I thought we were in for a traditional, mindless, "desperately trying to lose my virginity," teenage sex romp. Thankfully, I was wrong. The setup for the rest of movie is brisk and to the point, but essentially James has to get a summer job instead of going to Europe because his dad got demoted from his job. The real meat and potatoes, if you will, begins when he applies at a really cheap looking amusement park (Adventureland, of course) as a last resort, seeing that his degree in some sort of European literature isn't worth a hill of beans without a master's degree to go along with it. At this meaningless summer job, he meets a slew of interesting characters, including Em (Kristen Stewart), for whom he almost instantly falls for. She's a very complex girl, with lots of parental issues and a total lack of self esteem and identity as made evident by her relationship with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), the repairs and maintenance guy. Mike is probably closing in on 30, married, but still enjoying the buffet of young co-eds working at the park. Reynolds' performance is understated and believable, and he does a good job of earning some sympathy for this otherwise pathetic human being. Also, Martin Starr, of Freaks and Geeks fame, gave a somewhat transcending performance as Joel, who becomes pretty good friends with James during the summer. As for the plot for the rest of the movie, there really isn't much of one. The kids sit around and smoke pot, go on dates, gossip, fight with their parents, get mad at each other, and pretty much just live their lives.

That's what it felt like, watching these characters actually experience this summer job and live through the relationships that are formed and subsequently broken or maintained. The comedy is there, but not quite as advertised. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play characters who are essentially there for comic relief, but the real humor comes from the many genuine moments between James and his friends, co-workers, or even the clientele. Each encounter feels real, like something from our own memory. It's a bit hazy, and maybe we don't remember the details exactly, but the feeling is there. We've been there. I don't think they needed to go where they did with the ending, it felt a little contrived, but in a way it earned it by getting it right consistently throughout.

Adventureland is one of my favorite films of 2009 so far, and although it's still early, I know that this one is going to stick with me. The personal style of storytelling really appealed to me and even though there wasn't a whole lot going on with the plot, it carried a lot of weight and was ultimately fulfilling. The trailers might mislead you into thinking this is Superbad 2; it isn't that, but it is a meaningful, heartfelt story which has been completely undersold, and deserves an audience. Go see it if you get a chance, then come on back and let me know your thoughts.

Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a charming little film about two sisters, and was written and directed by two women, Christine Jeffs and Megan Holley. Although they are both relatively inexperienced in their respective facilities, they added a much needed "women's touch" to this film, which is probably an accurate look at the bond of sisterhood, touchingly displayed between Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

Amy Adams' character, Rose, is a single mom and cleaning lady; once the popular high school cheerleader, now cleaning up after some of her old class-mates and their perfect little families. When she discovers one of her new clients is in fact one of these old classmates, she lies about the fact that she's actually just received her real estate license and that the cleaning lady gig is short-term. This event peaks her desires to finally make a change, which she does, if only a horizontal shift into the world of crime-scene cleanup. This came from the suggestion of her high school sweetheart and long-time lover, Mac (Steve Zahn), who is a police detective, married to another former class-mate. She also employs her sister Norah (Blunt) in this venture, who is living with their father (Alan Arkin) and constantly moving from job to dead end job, searching for meaning in her life, especially affected by the lack of a mother growing up. Although Norah is the regular babysitter during Rose's regular late night rendezvous with Mac, she is anything but a responsible person which leads to an event that causes much strife between these sisters and finally a scene of sisterly bonding and tearful reconciliation.

This film is filled supporting characters that are pretty well written, namely Steve Zahn as Mac, the cheating husband who will never leave his family to be with Rose, Alan Arkin as Joe, the entrepreneurial minded dad who obviously suffered from not having his wife all those years, Mary Lynn Rajskub as Lynn, a women who Norah tries to befriend in the hope of sharing some common bond that she thinks they have, and Clifton Collins, Jr. as the one armed cleaning supply store owner Winston, who becomes a stable friend to Rose and her imaginative son Oscar. Not to sound cliché, but the characters are fleshed out and each compliments the story well. My only criticism is that some scenes seemed to be a bit melodramatic and overly sentimental, especially the later scene in the bathroom between Rose and Norah. However, there were also scenes, such as the last between Rose and Mac, that were very subtle and real.

Sunshine Cleaning is an enjoyable film with good writing and believable performances by most involved, but especially Amy Adams, who has been spectacular in recent films such as Enchanted, Doubt, and Junebug, the latter two for which she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. I was looking forward to this film since I first saw the trailer, and I was not disappointed. I especially recommend this film as a date movie, or girls night out, as I believe that female audience members specifically will appreciate the story and performances by these fine actresses, especially when great female lead roles are still too few and far between.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Gomorrah is a gritty, realistic look at the Italian mafia, more specifically the Camorra crime family based in Naples, whose reach extends around the world. The film is based on the book of the same name by Roberto Saviano, who went undercover and put his life in danger while doing research for the book. The fact that he is under police protection to this day adds to the haunting realism portrayed in the film. This film is also presented by Martin Scorsese, and is more similar to Scorsese's take on the mafia than the romanticism of The Godfather and other popular mafia films. It goes beyond a traditional narrative, using documentary style episodes to unabashedly display the characters and their plights.

The film follows five different sets of characters, none of which actually cross paths. We see a master tailor working indirectly for the Camorra, whose loyalty is questioned when hired by the Chinese to teach a class; two teenagers who want to be Tony Montana and grow their own criminal organization from scratch, fearlessly crossing paths with the Camorra in the process; a cash delivery man, making his weekly rounds, caught in the middle of an internal struggle with a gang of defectors and the Camorra; a chronically unemployed young man who gets a job as a personal assistant to a mobster in charge of toxic waste dumping; a boy of about 10 or 12, who makes a decision that seals the fate of him and his family.
There is no huge twist or reveal at the end to tie them all together. What ties them together is simply their association with the Camorra. The bosses at the very top are never seen. We know nothing of the hierarchy, their grand scheme, or the mastermind behind any of it, only the bleak day to day struggles of a few minor characters in this huge, expansive enterprise. It is so ingrained in that society and easy to get involved that most probably don't even realize it or give it much thought. There's a real sense of the normalcy in the connections between legal business establishments and the criminal underworld, which isn't really an "underworld" at all.

The violence is brutal and frequent, never stylized or glorified in any way. There's a growing sense of dread as we witness these characters hopelessly struggling against an unmovable force of evil. The film doesn't judge them, but presents each story with unflinching honesty. There is no melodrama or sentimentality to be found as these characters come to realize and settle into their fate. Some try to act in a positive manner, others resign to their bleak situation, and some are oblivious to it. This harsh look into their world is abrasive and unsympathetic, but ultimately truthful.

Gomorrah stands strongly on it's own as a work of art, but also educates its audience, lifting the sexy veil of Hollywood gangster flicks to reveal the monster beneath. It is not necessarily an enjoyable movie to watch, but an important one none the less; shot with great technical prowess and directed with both vision and attention to detail. Brace yourself, and then see this movie.


Write/director Tony Gilroy is a great writer and has recently proven a competent director. Until he decided to try on the director hat he was best known for penning the screenplay for all three Bourne movies, which were both critically and commercially successful. Now he has seemed to find his niche with the underhanded dealings of corporate espionage, first with his critically acclaimed, Oscar winning Michael Clayton, and now with Duplicity.

Duplicity is essentially a love story about two spies, one CIA the other MI6, who fall in love while on the job in Dubai. Their story is told in the present, both having left their respective agencies, as they work together to defraud two large corporations out of a multi-million dollar product, and through flashbacks, which fill in the gaps and gradually let you in on their entire scheme. The ex-spies, played brilliantly by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, are hired by competing pharmaceutical companies who manufacture all types of creams and lotions, which evidently are two completely different things. Julia's character is also hired by one corporation to be a mole inside the other corporation's security team. The CEOs for the corporations (Tom Wilkinson & Paul Giamatti) hate each others guts, as evident by the hilarious opening sequence, and are constantly trying to undermine each other, to always stay one step ahead. The unfolding plot is not confusing, but as Julia Roberts said in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, you don't want to have to go take a pee in the middle of it.

This is Julia Roberts' first real headliner since Mona Lisa Smile (2003), having acted in some ensemble pieces and done some voice work along the way. One of those ensemble pieces was Closer, which also starred Clive Owen in a messy love rectangle along with Natalie Portman and Jude Law. Owen's and Roberts' chemistry in Closer was electric, albeit in a much more serious movie, and they do not seem to have lost any of that connection or electricity. Another very intriguing element to the movie is a conversation between the two that takes place several times throughout the movie, almost word for word, and every time you hear it you know a little bit more of what's going on. Much more than some quirky gimmick, I found it to be an effective narrative tool, both fresh and original.

I think this film plays well for most audiences because it is light hearted, playful, and sexy, while simultaneously being suspenseful and ironic, all within the mystique of a good heist movie. As a point of reference, I'd place it in between Michael Clayton and the Ocean's movies, thematically as well as its tonality. What finally makes this film one to see is its overall quality. The masterfully written script, the great direction, and the abundance of incredible actors make Duplicity well worth your movie-going dollars.