Monday, July 27, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is the best Iraq war film ever, and one of the best war films since Saving Private Ryan. It's a taught thriller, wrapped in the rough, sandy exterior of the war in Iraq. Part of the reason The Hurt Locker succeeds is that it's primarily a character study and stays away from political analysis and opinion about the war itself. This is easily Kathryn Bigelow's best film, and is sure to win her some Hollywood clout when it comes 'round to awards season.

At the center of this film is an EOD squad (explosive ordnance disposal), made up of three men, who must constantly disarm roadside bombs of all shapes and sizes. Each scenario is different, but the suspense is palpable. These men have to not only worry about disarming the bomb, but are constantly on the lookout for the enemy hidden in plain sight amongst the Iraqi civilians (who watch the EOD squad eagerly and intently), ready to set off the bomb.

Jeremy Renner plays the leader of this EOD squad, and his performance is superb, with a mix of super-hero like bravado and emotional gravitas. His character is complex and mesmerizing, but ultimately I was frustrated by the direction this film went with him. Whether you respect him or not, it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. His squad mates are also complex characters and the dynamic between this team is volatile, heartwarming, and even comedic at times. Throughout the film there are other characters the squad comes into contact with, usually played by big name actors, but each is handled with such a deft, understated touch that really increases the sense of realism.

If you only see one movie this year that's set during a war, see Inglourious Basterds. If you see two, check out The Hurt Locker. The pacing of the story, the beautiful cinematography, the acting and direction all deserve to be seen.

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer is the bubblegum pop music video version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, without the science fiction. It's every young man's celebration of frustration, a clinical case of fascination and rejection viewed from outside the fourth dimension. This film preys on young white male nostalgia much like Garden State or Adventureland, but focusing more on the relationship than the entire "coming of age" journey.

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls head over heals for Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a receptionist at the greeting card company that Tom writes for (not quite the ideal job for an architecture major). We're told from the beginning that things don't work out, and the movie constantly jumps from day to day at different points in the relationship. This format allows for insight into different phrases or activities repeated throughout the film, each within a different emotional context at different phases of their relationship. We know from the beginning that it isn't going to work out between these quirky lovebirds, but the experience is in the journey, and the unconventional storytelling ultimately redeems the film for me.

This movie is a cutesy independent film, and it is incredibly aware of that fact. So many indy film cliches, so little time. In their mid-twenties. Some of the things that worked were the opening text (one of the funniest moments of the film) and a hysterical musical dance sequence. The one thing that really didn't work for me was his younger yet wiser 12 - 14 year-old sister whom he went to for relationship advise for some reason. Summer herself can often be unbearable and almost vile in the way she misleads and treats Tom. I found myself disliking her character so strongly that it might have hurt my appreciation of the film. This is Tom's movie, each heart-wrenching experience ripped from the real lives of the writers, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb (as usual) in this role.

Despite it's downfalls, (500) Days of Summer does strike some chords of familiarity and nostalgia, and while the visceral impact was not as strong for me as with other films I mentioned, I deem it a success. It is often hilarious and even insightful, and the quirkiness can be infectious if you just sit back and accept this flamboyant celebration of cutesy independent film making for what it is.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two Lovers

This little gem of a film came out very early this year and I was just recently able to catch up with it on Netflix. Two Lovers has achieved moderate fame for being Joaquin Phoenix's "last film." This of course being due to his foray into the hip hop performance industry, leaving his acting career in the dust. It's hard to take him seriously, especially when he appeared as he did on Letterman apparently high, or completely out of his mind. Some people (Ebert) thought this was completely unfair to his fellow actors and filmmakers on this project. Normally I'd agree with him, but it seems that this episode actually made more people aware of the film, and that is a good thing, because it really is one of the better films of 2009 so far.

Two Lovers centers around Leonard (Phoenix), a Jewish man, probably in his late twenties, who has recently moved back into his parents house and started working in their dry cleaning business. I love the dynamic between him and his parents. Their relationship is so sweet and quaint, but seems real, in a way I haven't seen on screen in a while. There's no unnecessary drama or people overreacting, or screaming at each other. They care for each other, and while his mother does seem to be a bit nosey at times, her behavior turns out to be completely merited.

The "two lovers" in question are Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the somewhat reckless free spirited neighbor, and Sandra (Venessa Shaw), the pretty, matronly daughter of his fathers business partner. Each has their own qualities, but he's more attracted to Michelle, who of course is in love with a married attorney that she works with. This may all seem a little too melodramatic, but Leonards back story (which I won't give away here) and Pheonix's outstanding performance grounds this story and completely supported my empathy for his character.

With excellent performances all the way around, and a poignant story told with a delicate touch by writer/director James Gray, there's a lot to like here. Although there's no doubt this is a small film, Two Lovers features one of the best performances of the year so far (excuse the hyperbole, but he's that good) and deserves to be seen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

This was a fun outing with my my son, my parents, my fiancé, her sister, and her kids. We just about filled up an entire row, and had a great time. This movie is pretty awesome to look at, and the 3D was fairly well done, although I'm not convinced it added too much. The story is simple and predictable, but humorous throughout. The main characters, voiced by Ray Romano, Queen Latifah, Dennis Leary, John Leguizamo, and newcomer Simon Pegg were all more than adequate. Obviously, the success of animated films relies heavily on the graphic artists, and doesn't really require A-list talent, usually doing just as well with B-list actors and TV stars. Sometimes I think the A-list talent seems to overwhelm a film, or provides an imaginary crutch that is swiftly yanked away upon a viewing by a critical audience (case in point: Shark Tale).

I benefited from catching Ice Age 2 on TV a few nights before with my son, so I think the continuity added to my enjoyment. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a nice addition to the series, full of adventure and humor, although the little bit of adult humor sprinkled in missed the mark by a country mile. Other animated films, such as Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, deliver the same type of story and childish humor, but offer a lot more for the adult audience. Not so much with Ice Age. Despite this fact, this is pretty much a must see if you have children under 10. There isn't much else out there right now, unless you want to go see Up again (which actually is a much better choice).


This movie was SO gay... I mean that in the most derogatory, homophobic sense of the word, and literally of course. Unlike Borat, Bruno isn't very funny, rather it evokes cries of shock and horror, as well as nervous laughter. Nor is Bruno smart, clever, profound, or revealing in any way. Here's the problem: I can get behind a satire exposing racism, even if it's found in the most obvious of places, because racism is wrong (it also helped that Borat was very funny, even beyond his its social commentary). Bruno tries to reveal the blatant "homophobia" in America, and fails, not only because his tactics merit the responses they receive (even according to politically correct standards), but because of the ignorant misconceptions shared by most of modern society.

Let me explain. I believe what the Bible says about homosexuality: that it's a sin, plain and simple. People are not born that way. That is a lie promulgated by the media and supported by most Americans in an attempt to be "tolerant" in this tumultuous time we live in. Now please do not misunderstand me; I do not hate homosexuals, nor do I have any "phobia" related to homosexuality. The Bible calls for us to love all people, however, it never condones the sinful act. It actually uses pretty strong words against homosexuality, declaring it an abomination to God. Why the strong language? Because it mocks the beautiful, natural relationship that God gave us; marriage between a man and a women. The marriage is a sacred covenant between the couple and God, which also illustrates the covenant between Jesus and the Church. Homosexuals shouldn't be legally defined by their sin any more than people who practice other forms of sexual immorality, illegal drug use, or simply hatred, greed, or jealousy.

Keep in mind, I am not condoning any hateful behavior on display in Bruno, but I honestly had trouble seeing any real hate towards him until the last 5 minutes or so. I should have known better than to go see this given my personal beliefs on the matter, but I was hopeful in that it was be more comedic than it was. Instead it was quite disgusting and was merely trying to shock the audience most of the time. It also shouldn't have been rated R since it displayed an erect penis for a significant amount of time, as well as real, not simulated, sexual acts that were only barely blotted out.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir with most of the people who will actually read this, but I needed to get out what I was feeling. This film offended the very nature of what I believe, and did it with absolutely no shame. Even if you disagree with my ideology, I doubt you will find much redeeming in this movie beyond a few humorous moments. At the end of the film is song, or rather a pathetic attempt at actually tying this movie together as some message of love, acceptance, and tolerance by having lots of A-list musicians perform with Bruno. At one point Snoopdog says something like, "Gay, OK" with a shrug of his shoulders, his attitude representing the blind acceptance of this sinful act as a natural way of life by Americans everywhere, simply because they think it doesn't affect them or they just don't want a conflict. Well, sorry Snoop, but it's not OK, but I fear it's too late, because the saturation into society is deep, and the conflict is everywhere we turn. God help us.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Public Enemies

Going into this year, Public Enemies was easily one of my top five most anticipated movies of 2009. Although he'd lose out to Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, I look forward to Michael Mann's films more than most. Since my son was in town, I had to go see this movie at 10:35 PM, which had us leaving the theater after 1 AM due to the 140 minute run time. Usually this is not a great strategy for watching a film you really want to see, but oddly enough I was alert and attentive throughout the entire film and was able to enjoy it immensely.

Much has been made of the visual style and sound mix, and it is revolutionary as well as controversial. Mann, who has used the digital camera on his last couple films, delivers another beautiful looking film that completely breaks the mold of how an epic period piece is supposed to look. The first twenty minutes were so full of amazing and unusual shots, I found myself distracted by them. As for the sound, the levels did seem to be a bit off throughout, but holy crap, you will never hear more realistic sounding guns in a movie. For me, these were non-issues, and as the "film" progressed I was engrossed in the action and as well as the superb performances.

Johnny Depp coolly portrays John Dillinger as a hardened killer without much of an explanation or back story. This was also an issue with many critics, but I found it so refreshing that this didn't turn into a character study/biopic. Marion Cotillard (who won the "Best Actress Oscar in 2007 for La vie en rose) gives a nice performance here as Dillingers love interest. The relationship is a bit shallow and sometimes melodramatic, but it didn't detract from the film at all, and overall I thought it really earned the emotional moment at the end. Christian Bale was a significant factor in my early estimation of this film's potential, but he ended up being the weakest part of the film. As with all of the characters there was very little development for Melvin Purvis (Bale), the hotshot FBI agent tasked with taking down Dillenger, and it didn't help that he appeared to be trying not to over-act, as he's been accused of doing in his last couple of films. The result was so understated as to almost render him invisible on screen. The first face to face confrontation between Dillenger and Purvis was fun, but could have been much more powerful if Bale had matched Depp's intensity and bravado.

I've been nit-picking this movie, because as a whole I don't think there's much wrong with it. I highly suggest you go see this movie. It's the best summer action film you will see this year, at least until August 21st (Inglourious Basterds!!!). Michael Mann is the type of director whose films deserve to be seen; each and every one of them. His style and method of story telling and filming action is unique and often refreshing in the midst of so many action films that are merely exercises in excess. Public Enemies does not deliver the greatness of Heat or The Last of the Mohicans, but it deserves a lofty, respectable position among his filmography.