Thursday, March 31, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK, Opening Day Edition: Bull Durham (1988)


It is tough to make a sports movie feel real. This is a technical issue more than anything else. Most sports do not look right when they are filmed for a movie. They feel too choreographed, too wooden. Some of the organic energy is taken away through blocking and having the camera there to try and catch a very specific outburst of action. That’s why most films that focus on a game like football are unwatchable, and why there are very few memorable basketball or hockey films. But baseball, on the other hand, baseball is a sport which exists as much in the pantheon of cinema as it does in the history of our country. It is calmer, easier to film, and the deliberate pacing allows for so much more richness of narrative than any contact sport. Ron Shelton, the director of Bull Durham, understands baseball. He knows the way it works from the ground up because he spent some time in the minors himself. Bull Durham is the quintessential baseball picture, alive with colorful characters and centered by a precocious woman and a cagey veteran catcher who’s been around the block.

Susan Sarandon plays Annie Savoy, our narrator and a woman who loves baseball almost as an erotic experience. She vows to spend each summer with a different newcomer to the Durham Bulls, a minor league club that, of course, is not that great on the field. Where would the comedy come from if these movie ball clubs were any good? Annie has two choices for a mate: the first is a young, cocky fastballer named “Nuke” LaLoosh, played by a dopey and wide-eyed Tim Robbins. Robbins has all the raw talent in the world but his ego is holding him back. That is the very reason Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is brought in. Davis, a seasoned veteran who has spent a career in the minors with a cup of coffee in the majors, is brought to the Bulls to wrangle LaLoosh and help him learn his potential. But Davis isn’t just a babysitter; he still wants the glory of “the show.” Naturally the two men don’t see eye to eye, which is where much of the comedy comes from.

The story outside the diamond becomes a comedic love triangle where Annie falls for Nuke, then Crash (only in minor league baseball do you find these names!), and the two men jockey for position in her heart. It is clear Annie belongs with Crash, but judging by her criteria set forth early in the picture Nuke fits her strategy a little more. The back and forth between these three characters is the heart of the story. Nuke enjoys the love affair with the team groupie; Crash discovers that he shares many of the same sensibilities with Annie that go beyond the summer nights spent in the Bulls’ stadium. I could never see another person playing Annie with a perfect balance the way Sarandon does. We don’t see her as a floozy or a ditz, but a woman who understands what she wants and goes for it. And is there another actor in the world who belongs in the center of a baseball movie more than Kevin Costner? I don’t think so.

But of course there is the baseball in Bull Durham. The baseball feels real, looks real, and is loaded with vibrant characters that, no matter how quirky or goofy they may be, seem like they are representations of real characters from Shelton’s past spent in the sport. There is the grizzled manager and the spunky assistant coach and the superstitious Hispanic player. All of these characters fill the margins of Bull Durham and give it vibrancy and a life unlike most baseball movies. The scenes between LaLoosh and Davis on the mound are written brilliantly and executed even better. Nuke won’t change his pitch, Crash argues, they go back and forth. So Crash tells the batter where the pitch is going to be and the batter drills it over the fence. Lesson learned.

Bull Durham is a film about lessons learned in the sport, and it examines the age-old metaphor of baseball as life. Say what you will about the modern game and the modern athlete, but there is still something magical about this time of year, when the stadiums open and the smell of baseball is in the air. Bull Durham understands the way baseball works its threads through our lives, and that is what makes it something more than a sports movie.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best of Science Fiction Film

10) Planet of the Apes – Sure it is a little bit hokey and definitely a product of the sixties. Just listen to Charlton Heston’s rhetoric about free love and women back on “his planet.” Planet of the Apes reverses several human sayings (human see, human do) for comedic effect as well. But for 1968, the look of the film is decidedly authentic and the ideas at the heart of the story are quite intriguing. Having crash-landed on what he believes to be another planet where apes have passed humans on the evolutionary ladder, Charlton Heston’s Taylor must try and convince these apes he is an advanced species. Planet of the Apes is fascinating to look at, first and foremost, but the most shocking twist ending is where this film finds its unexpected power in the pantheon.

9) The Matrix – Perhaps this film would be higher on the list had it not been spoiled by two very confusing, very mediocre sequels. Nevertheless, the original Matrix was a brilliant science-fiction film and a watershed moment for special effects. Sometimes, a film can be recognized for its importance based on the number of imitations and rip-offs and spoofs of its material we see. I would argue the effects and the technology of The Matrix were the most copied effects in film history. And the story itself, that the lives we live are simply computer programs and we are all living in embryonic pods being fed to large machines in the “real present,” was inventive and open for much interpretation. And the action at the heart of The Matrix was revolutionary.

8) The Day the Earth Stood Still – The 1950s were loaded to the gills with science fiction films as the nuclear threat and the threat of Russian influence was ripe for metaphorical pictures. Science fiction existed on the ideas of the unknown, so the fear was already ingrained in the American public. Most sci-fi of the fifties isn’t very good, but has its own cult following and a few blogs dedicated to it. The most influential of the bunch was The Day the Earth Stood Still, a straightforward alien invasion picture rife with ideas and theories on our place in the world. Klaatu, the alien who visits our planet, delivers some strong warnings about our way of life that still seem important today; maybe more important. The ideas are what separate the picture from the giant ant and other alien films of the era. And avoid the remake starring Keanu Reeves at all costs.

7) Children of Men – Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 sci-fi masterpiece tackles ideas almost exclusively and leaves the technology to the more effects driven sci-fi films. In this dystopian future where women are not able to have babies and the youngest person on the planet dies unexpectedly, an unlikely hero (Clive Owen, brilliant) must transport a pregnant girl to the mythical “Human Project.” There are glimpses of the future in technology in a few scenes, but for the most part Children of Men is an organic, naturalistic look at a bleak future where hope is scant. There are a few awe-inspiring moments in Children of Men, but two very specific sequences that stand as some of the best camera work of the decade.

6) Alien – James Cameron’s sequel has been considered by many to be a better film. I could not disagree more. Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, is an effective thriller and a rousing action picture, but as far as classic science fiction films go, Ridley Scott’s patient, slow-burning original is above the sequel on technical craft and realization. Scott was careful with the structure of Alien, allowing the viewer to see the creature in inventive ways. At first it is the face-hugging creature, then a monster born from the stomach of a crew member, then something larger and purely evil. Sigourney Weaver took on the role of Ellen Ripley with dogged determination, and her performance is what keeps the events grounded in an eerie sense of realism.

5) Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope – Say what you will about George Lucas these days – and I most assuredly will – but he changed the landscape of Hollywood in 1976 with the original Star Wars. The film was a phenomenon and changed the way big-budget pictures could be approached. But what is more important is the set up of the story, a broad-spanning epic tale of fathers and sons and a fantastic adventure picture. The moments opening the film still stir the emotions. Young Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader are ingrained in our consciousness thanks to the mind of Lucas. While the dialogue may be stunted, it fits the classic narrative structure of the film perfectly.

4) Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – A few years after Episode IV took over the world, director Irvin Kershner directed one of the rarest of films; here is a sequel superior to the original in almost every way. Often times, the second act of a trilogy carries the meat of the story (look at The Godfather, Part II) and benefits from taking the original picture into darker places. Empire takes the adventures of Luke, Han and company to Cloud City, the snow planet of Hoth, and introduces the world to the great Yoda. Empire also delivered one of the most brilliant and far-fetched twists in all of cinema, and changed the way we look at these characters forever. Darth Vader is Luke’s father?!? Our reaction was the same as Luke’s the first time we heard it.

3) Metropolis – We now enter my own personal “holy trinity” of science fiction films. Without Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, the look of science fiction films may have never been the same. If you look across the never ending landscape of science fiction films, you see influences of Lang’s film. The endless cityscape of The Fifth Element, Dark City, the new Star Wars films, even a picture yet to be named here, all exist because of Lang’s complete and awe-inspiring vision. Even the mad scientists who have littered the landscape of cinema for nearly a hundred years all owe something to the mad scientist at the heart of Metropolis. Aesthetics aside, Metropolis is also a statement film about totalitarianism and the uprising of the working class which resonates perhaps more today than ever.

2) 2001: A Space Odyssey – Of course, the trivia associated with Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi film is it holds the record for greatest jump cut in cinema. Going from a bone flying through the air of prehistoric Earth to a space station floating through the expanse of the universe, the jump cut accounts for millions of years of time that has passed. 2001 is groundbreaking and patient and unforgettable. It deals not with events as immediate as what happens in the plot; instead, the final act of 2001 focuses on the evolution of man. Is there a definitive explanation as to what our protagonist endures? Perhaps not. But there is an abstract idea. And that is the power of Kubrick’s vision. And we cannot forget the haunting, monotone voice of HAL, the computer who shows the audience the dangers of superior intellect in technology.

1) Blade Runner – This may be a bit controversial for some, but hey, this is my list. Blade Runner is the penultimate science fiction film, a film which tackles questions both big and small regarding human existence. It is the near future, in a bleak Los Angeles, where we meet Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a blade runner in charge of tracking down rogue replicants, robots eerily similar to human beings. The issue of what makes us human is the central focus of Blade Runner, and the story itself is told in one of the most fully realized, visionary world of the future ever put on screen. Blade Runner is a marvel to look at, a challenge to think about, and a film that is the very definition of what science fiction should be about.


SHOUTOUTS: To Inception, a film that needs a little more time to marinate before it can find its way on a list like this, to District 9, an effective sci-fi thriller with humanity at its core, and to Dark City, a Metropolis-styled picture that is often overlooked.

Monday, March 28, 2011

WHY SO SAD?: Some Reasons for Sadness and Anguish in Film

As humans, we spend the majority of our lives working to be happy. We try and avoid sadness despite the fact it is impossible. Nobody truly wants to feel sadness or depression or deal with darker issues in their lives. People pass away in our lives. Things change. We lose pets and jobs and children and parents and happiness. But these are issues we are never quite prepared for because it is inherent to human nature to defend our emotional thresholds. If this is true, and an inherent human defense mechanism, then why do we watch sad movies? What is it about emotionally draining films, about sadness on the silver screen that entices many of us?

I watched Rabbit Hole this weekend, the Nicole Kidman drama about a family whose four-year old son is killed by a car. This is the type of picture I am referring to. Rabbit Hole is steeped in emotional despair, a raw minefield of misery and mourning. It is also a powerful film with fine performances all around, not only from Nicole Kidman but even more so from Aaron Eckhart as the grieving husband. Rabbit Hole confronts the issue of losing a child as well as guilt, blame, and the capacity for moving on. These are issues we, as humans, try our best to avoid. Yet here they are for us all to see in a film, in a medium we often classify as “entertainment.” Can a depressing film, one like Rabbit Hole, be entertainment?

Sad films are not new in any way. They have been around since the beginning of cinema. Look back to the early days of filmmaking to something like M, Fritz Lang’s drama about a tortured child serial killer. There is the forbidden love at the heart of Casablanca. There is Kramer vs. Kramer, a heart-wrenching tale about a child caught in the middle of a nasty divorce. Consider Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a film about the horrors of the holocaust. And then there is Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s hyper-stylized examination of addiction that shaped the way I look at and consider films and filmmaking. This film is one of the five most depressing I have ever or will ever see. But I love it. Depressing films litter the landscape of Hollywood and beyond, and many are nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Because these are the films where realism and true and raw emotion are on display.

Comedies, fantasies, action films, science-fiction films, even horror pictures are considered escapist. These pictures take the audience away from the real world to scare or invigorate or make us laugh. Depressing dramas serve as a balance for some. These films do the opposite of creating an escape; they create introspection. We observe the sadness of these worlds on the screen and they work as catharsis. We feel these emotions for these people because it either softens the blow of sadness we have in our own lives or it allows us to feel these things for these fictional characters as a substitution.

Sometimes when things are going swimmingly, the ability to watch a sad film unfold may be just the thing to keep us balanced. There is a rush of emotion when we see sadness on film. Some are overwhelmed when they see the red dress atop the pile of ashes in Schindler’s List, or when Billy Kramer cries to his father he doesn’t want to leave him, or when Sara Goldfarb becomes a slave to an addiction that was merely accidental. There is a swelling in the chest, a flood of feelings that we often bury deep inside of us and hide with comedies or various genre films. And that is perfectly all right. There are plenty of times for us to be sad in our own lives; some see no reason to endure these feelings of pain and emotional distress in a medium considered entertainment. But some of us do enjoy these feelings, because we know there is a definitive end to the way we feel in the middle of a picture. We know when the screen goes black we will be able to move on, away from these people and their sadness and their fictional lives. And we also know that no matter how realistic and true these stories may be, they are told simply as stories by actors who will be able to move on as well. The assurance on the fourth wall existing between us and the stories we are watching is enough for many of us to simply sit back and be overwhelmed for a couple of hours every once in a while. It keeps us in check. In a way, perhaps, it keeps us sane.

Friday, March 25, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Superhero Bits and Zack Snyder Bitching

* Captain America looks awesome. That’s all there is to it.

* On one hand, I don’t see why everyone seems surprised about Sucker Punch being crucified by critics. This clearly isn’t the type of film critics ever embrace anyway. On the other hand, they’re probably right.

* Which leads me, again, to Zack Snyder and Superman, and my concerns. Snyder is a magnificent visual storyteller; there is no doubt about that. But his characters are empty vessels and his stories get overrun by the visual prowess on display. Characters disappear. 300 was all glitz and an annoyingly over the top and grating film. Watchmen was okay when it should have been great. He has to be the most overrated director in some time. This doesn’t bode well for a Superman film, to me anyway.

* A common defense I get of Zack Snyder and Watchmen is: “he did the best he could. That graphic novel was practically unfilmable.” That is a ridiculous argument. If the graphic novel – one of the best modern novels of all time – is unfilmable, don’t just give it a shot. Either do it or don’t do it, and if you can’t do it right then move on to something else. I’m with Alan Moore on this one (nerds know what I mean).

* Every day we get some new cast member for The Dark Knight Rises. The latest is some woman who will supposedly be Catwoman’s sidekick. Nevermind we don't need that character, are we going to get updates when Chris Nolan starts hiring extras? Nolan casts Barry, a Los Angeles waiter at Sushi Den, as extra number 45 on TDKR!!!

* The consistently positive outlook on Source Code surprises me a little. I’m not sure why. I guess because I didn’t really care for Moon.

* Richard Linklater has been gone for quite a while. I’d like to see something new from him soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Bullitt (1968)

Today, Steve McQueen would have been 81 years old had he not died unexpectedly in 1980 of mesothelioma. McQueen was less actor than icon, a legendary screen presence who has managed to never fade from popular culture despite being gone 31 years. Perhaps that is why; McQueen never got old, never became a slave to the new media where each and every scandal is scrutinized, and never disappeared into the sewage of films so many screen legends have done in recent years. McQueen was a fashion icon, the epitome of cool, and he was most successful as an actor when he didn’t try to stray from the mythos he built in his personal life. Ask anyone out there to name one Steve McQueen film and you may get two possible answers for the most part. One is The Great Escape. The other, Bullitt.

Bullitt holds a spot atop the pantheon of police action films. It is one of the best and holds up even after forty years. As a matter of fact, Bullitt is a better cop film than most modern cop films because of the grit and the realism and a car chase that puts modern CGI and over-the-top stunt work to shame in its sheer simplicity. McQueen plays Bullitt, a streetwise San Francisco cop assigned to protect a high profile witness. When the witness is killed, Bullitt is leaned on by Chalmers, the politico up to no good played by Robert Vaughn. Chalmers was the man determined to keep the witness protected but when he is killed he implores Bullitt to hide the body until they can find out who is behind the murder. Of course, it becomes evident Chalmers may not be telling the whole truth. Bullitt becomes the central pawn in a larger story, one that he works doggedly to uncover. The film becomes a mystery wrapped up in a tidy action package.

I have long thought of San Francisco to be the most cinematically pleasing of cities. The architecture and the shape and the tilt of the streets beg to be filmed. Director Peter Yates understood this in Bullitt, and choreographed what still may be the best car chase in film history. The 1968 Mustang GT is one of the most memorable film autos. McQueen made sure to be filmed clearly and visibly driving the car so the audience would know it was him and not a stunt driver. This detail adds to the realism of the sequence which runs over nine minutes. Rather than scoring the chase the decision was made to leave the sequence without music. This makes the chase raw and much more powerful than it would have ever been with a manipulative score.

Bullitt is a film of style over substance, this is true. But what a stylish film. Much was made at the time of McQueen’s casual attire. His turtleneck and sport coat and his under-the-shoulder holster was something new to the police genre. Seeing as most of the action takes place over a weekend the attire is not technically out of dress code for police at the time. Regardless, McQueen created an iconic character simply by being himself. Bullitt is one of the defining action pictures in film history, and in my opinion the definitive picture of Steve McQueen’s emblematic career and life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MOVIE POSTER REPORT CARD

THE TREE OF LIFE - As suspected, the poster for Terrence Malick's latest film is as ambiguous and mysterious as the director and the film. The blue coloring is beautiful and the stars serene. One would expect a tree of some sort to be the central focus of the poster, but I do like the added details of the ladder and the rope. It piques my interest even more. But my favorite aspect of this poster is the very faint, nondescript outline of the house on the right. It is a subtle touch but it adds a layer to a poster that could have been straightforward without it. But I'm not sure I like the font used on the lettering. Too rigid. A-





SOURCE CODE - Good lord, what in the hell is happening in this poster? There is no reference to a train, to Chicago, to anything that makes any sense. Why are there little frames of people flying all over the place? I can't really tell what any of the frames are anyway. And Gyllenhall looks confused and stiff, like someone shaped his body into that awkward running motion and he feels wrong. IS that smoke in the background or clouds? Sciencie Fiction films often have a lot of moving parts, juxtaposing that with a simple, clean, memorable movie poster is usually a good idea. F






WATER FOR ELEPHANTS - This film looks interesting, and Christolph Waltz is present so I may be able to fight through Robert Pattinson. For the poster, I would have liked to see him featured more than just hiding in the shadows. And the elephant just looks stuck on the side, like the creators are saying "yes, there really is an elephant in it." And is it just me, or does it look like Pattinson is trying to grab Reese's ass? The falling stars are a nice magical effect to hint at the storyline. B









CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER - This is Marvel really beginning to amp up the Avengers film. I like the font and the singularity of the word. But I don't see the point in making Captain America look like he is at the front door of his girlfriend's parent's house asking her father if he can date her. He might as well be holding a hat, not his all-powerful shield. The color pallette is marvelous though; not too shiny but perfectly grey and muted for a war-time superhero film. The background of flying debris is a nice touch to an overused element in most posters. B-

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The MPAA Ratings: Time to Fix a Broken System


WARNING: There will be a few minor spoilers on a handful of movies in this post.
It has been understood for a while that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system is, for lack of a better word, bullshit. But it seems the rating system has been slowly degenerating into complete obscurity over the last year or two. The rating discrepancy between Black Swan and Blue Valentine is well documented: the former had an oral sex scene between two women, the latter between a husband and wife. Blue Valentine was slapped with an NC-17 rating which inexplicably means the picture is doomed to suffer in limbo without distribution or marketing opportunity. Only after a hard-fought appeals period was the decision reversed.
This past weekend I saw the two big releases, Limitless and The Lincoln Lawyer. One was rated PG-13 and one R. One film included regular drug abuse, sex, a man on a couch with a hole in his head, a half dozen additional murders, a handful of bad language, a needle being stabbed into the eye of a man, and a man drinking the blood of a stabbing victim off the floor. The other, two brief flashbacks of a woman being beat up, the inference of sex, a man killed off screen, and a handful of bad language.

Guess which one got the R rating.

Yes, The Lincoln Lawyer, a straight legal thriller with nothing overtly threatening scenes, no visible blood, very little swearing, no nudity, and scant violence, was given an R rating. Meanwhile, Limitless was a parade of envelope-pushing violence and excess and was rewarded with a PG-13 rating. If there ever was a need for two films to have their ratings reversed it would be these two. I graded these films the same as they were equal in quality. The tomatometer for The Lincoln Lawyer was twenty percent higher than Limitless. Yet Limitless took the number one spot at the box office while The Lincoln Lawyer had to settle for number four behind another PG-13 parade of violence – Battle: LA – and an animated film, Rango. If you don’t think the rating had something to do with this you are missing the issue.


Consider last year around Awards season. Two films combined to bring in 22 Oscar nominations. The first one was True Grit. It included multiple shootings, fingers being cut off, a young girl in peril and falling into a cave surrounded by poisonous snakes, and the killing of an animal on screen. PG-13. The King’s Speech had only one scene with the repeated use of “fuck” in order to show, through comedy, the King struggling with his stutter. R. Since The King’s Speech was such a hit at the Oscars it has done quite well at the box office, but it is still a good $40 million behind the take of True Grit. The scene in The King’s Speech has been the basis of much controversy as Harvey Weinstein has toyed with editing the scene out in order for The King’s Speech to get a PG-13 rating. This is lunacy. The film should not have been rated R to begin with. If you want to fix something, Mr. Weinstein, fix the MPAA rating system. You’re powerful enough, obviously.

If you haven’t yet seen the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, I highly suggest it. The film explains the MPAA and the antiquated way in which films are judged and sentenced much better than I could in a few hundred words. If I had a solution to this problem I would suggest throwing out the letter ratings all together. List the issues with each film that are evident and allow viewers to make their own decisions rather than deciding on some indefinite letter system that really tells an untrue story. You cannot tell me a parent taking their 14-year old son or daughter to see Limitless would be pleased with what happens in that film versus taking them to see The Lincoln Lawyer.

In this example, if you were to list issues they may read something like this:

Limitless – drug use, moderate language, consistent violence, suggested sex, excessive blood

The Lincoln Lawyer – moderate language, suggested sex, brief violence

Given these two explanations it would be clear which film a parent might decide on. For the rest of us, we don’t consider the rating of a movie in the first place so it is not for us. It is for the parents and the guardians wanting to protect their kids. In this way, the MPAA is not doing a service for society. They are simply being manipulated by studios to give films ratings in order to bring in more money and cover budgets. This is merely one thing that isn’t right about the way Hollywood works these days. The system is broken and it must be fixed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

THE LINCOLN LAWYER: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy (119 min.)

It is reassuring to discover Matthew McConaughey can still act.

For years McConaughey was content to go for the easy paychecks and the easy pictures, starring in one Romantic comedy after another. Fortunately, something has inspired him to get back into serious roles. In The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey returns to the legal field where he has had his most critical success in the past. He is Mick Haller, a defense attorney who holds court in the backseat of a classic, jet black Lincoln Sedan. He has to do this as his license was suspended, most likely for a DUI, and is driven around by a chauffeur. Haller is known for being an ace defense attorney and getting scum a not guilty verdict. But when a parole officer (John Leguizamo) drops in his lap the case of Louis Roulet, Haller becomes a player in a much larger plan.

Roulet, played by Ryan Phillippe, is a Beverly Hills pretty boy accused of battery and attempted rape against a woman. He swears up and down he is entirely innocent. Anyone who has spent any time with a legal thriller knows that is not the truth. Haller and his personal investigator and friend, Frank (a wonderful William H. Macy) discover they may simply be pawns in a larger plan. I won’t go into any further details of the plot, but I will say the intricacies fit together quite well. A vital aspect of a legal thriller like this is, no matter how elaborate the plot, the pieces must fit together or your audience will be lost.

The Lincoln Lawyer is rich not only in plot but in the world these characters inhabit. Haller’s ex-wife Maggie (Marisa Tomei) is still around quite a bit. Though she has been basically reduced to driving Haller home from the bar. And Haller has to deal with the heat of an LA detective (Bryan Cranston) who thinks he is up to no good. The prosecuting attorney in the case, Ted Minton (Josh Lucas), is also a tough nut to crack. A quick aside: I do not understand why, with all of the capable actors available, the production team would decide to cast Josh Lucas, the man who looks most like Matthew McConaughey, as his adversary in the courtroom. Whenever the two men are on screen together I find myself distracted by their uncanny similarities to each other.

Director Brad Furman, a director of mostly short films in his brief history behind the camera, is a sure-handed director here. The Lincoln Lawyer looks great, feels great, and sounds even better. Although we are in the familiar Los Angeles legal system, the story takes us into the peripheral neighborhoods and suburbs of LA that are not as familiar. And the soundtrack pops with urban hip hop and pitch-perfect tunes. Adapted from an airport page turner by Michael Connelly, the picture works in much the same way with small episodic sequences building a larger story. All of the performances from this cast are compelling in certain moments. All are solid. And McConaughey is perfect as Mick Haller; a little cocky, a little bit of a drunken mess, a man whose morality eventually gets the better of him, Haller is the perfect protagonist for a story like this one.

I had a little trouble with a few relationships in the story. Haller’s relationship with Maggie seems a little too polished. The two are divorced but sure do spend a lot of time together and still appear to be very much in love. Some of their flirtation felt a little too “Hollywood” for me. And there is a curious relationship involving Frank that is never explained. But these are minor issues. The Lincoln Lawyer is a taut legal thriller, one that will surely find itself in heavy rotation on a station like TNT or TBS in the future. Because it is a film you can stop down and watch and enjoy at any point. Just like the novel I assume.

B+

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Limitless


LIMITLESS: Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, Abby Cornish (105 min.)

Limitless is part of the recent surge of science fiction films that exist more or less in some representation of the real world. The Adjustment Bureau and next month’s Source Code fall into this recent uptick. Although I have not seen Source Code yet, I feel confident in saying Limitless is the most enjoyable of the three. Does it have issues? Yes. Are there things that don’t quite work? A little. But there is no denying the picture has rhythm and energy and conviction in its story that is undeniable. A premise is put into place, toyed with, and the result is a film that doesn’t allow you to stop having fun long enough to really think about plot details or logic issues.

Bradley Cooper, in a role that will surely bump his star status up a little more, plays Eddie Morra. Eddie is a writer, though he hasn’t written a word of his book for which he is under contract. He mopes around, unshaven, shaggy-haired and frumpy. He mooches off his successful girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) until she dumps him. Eddie leaves the break-up lunch gloomy and runs into his ex brother in law Vernon. Vernon is a man with many shady dealings and connections and he decides Eddie needs a little help; if I were to see this Eddie I would think he needs help too. Vernon gives Eddie a pill that he explains will allow him to use 100% of his brain rather than the standard twenty we use. Reluctant at first, Eddie takes the pill on his way home and never looks back.

He finishes his novel in four days, he chats up people at anonymous parties (not sure how or where he found his way into these stories, but that is one of those details I mentioned earlier), he sees everything everywhere. He is immediately the most interesting and captivating man in the room. It doesn’t take him long before he gets Lindy back and decides writing may not be the most lucrative career for a man of his newfound intelligence so he decides to get into the stock market where he makes millions in mere days. This draws the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro) a big shot CEO who wants to use Eddie to handle the biggest financial merger in history.

But what of the drug? NZT it is called. And of course it has side effects I will not get into here so as not to spoil anything. Eddie needs to take one everyday or it wears off and he is back to dull old Eddie. And then, of course, there are shady characters on his tail and a Russian mobster who figures out his secret by accident and leans on him for the pills. It seems like there are always Russians and nondescript heavies in the margins of a film like Limitless.

Director Neil Burger does not shy away from telling much of the story of Limitless through camera tricks and creativity in his lenses. There are fish-eye shots, camera rushing down the streets of New York for a brilliant effect, letters raining from the sky when Eddie writes, and a nice subtle color and tonal shift between Eddie the schlep and enhanced Eddie that may or may not be a bigger clue to the story. Limitless feels like it has a hundred things going on in a short amount of time. I think this is part of Burger’s plan. We experience Eddie’s evolution as fast and as furious as he experiences it and the events which transpire must feel like a rush of an oncoming train.

There are some questions and a few branches of the story that feel forced or abandoned. One subplot involves a murdered woman in a hotel room that I didn’t need. And there is a montage of Eddie suffering the side effects in the middle of the film that is a confusing mess. And there are several questions I thought of as I watched Eddie access his entire brain. It seems like that might make a person go insane, taking on that much thought at once. But I must get to the confrontation between Eddie and the Russians near the end of the movie. The scene does go on a little too long, but there is a moment in the scene that will be talked about more than any other part I imagine. There will be detractors and defenders of “the moment,” a gross-out sequence that left my mouth agape. But I don’t quite know what I think about it yet. I can’t support or defend it right now. All I know is it’s a bold stroke one way or another that might or might not lose a few viewers. I stayed on board.

Limitless is Bradley Cooper’s film, and this feels like it may be his big year. He will one day be a great actor on top of a handsome face; I am sure of it. And Robert DeNiro seems to really be acting here, as opposed to his recent run of poor films. He delivers a speech to Eddie near the middle of the picture that is vintage DeNiro. I felt intimidated. It was fresh to see. Warts aside – and there are warts – Limitless deals fairly well with modern-day society’s lust for instant power and meteoric rises over hard work and long years of effort. And it is a fun film with plenty of camera tricks and a solid rhythm that all serve a purpose; to put you into the mind of this new, improved Eddie Morra.

B+

Friday, March 18, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Aronofsky-less Wolverines, Aliens, and Tom Hanks

* A Bradley Cooper movie and a Matthew McConaughey movie out in the same weekend? What are the women of America to do?

* I think Paul the alien looks like poor CGI. He sticks out way too much compared to the background.

* Speaking of Paul, I visited Roswell, New Mexico when I was in high school. I am convinced a UFO crash landed there and replaced all the townsfolk with aliens.

* I am supremely disappointed that Darren Aronofsky had to bow out of directing The Wolverine. Not that I am a huge fan of the X-Men characters (they are my least favorite of the Marvel Universe), but because I would love to see what a director with the talent and vision of Aronofsky could do with the story. Just don’t go get somebody like Joel Schumacher or Simon West to fill his shoes. I don’t know exactly who to get; but at least make an effort. What’s Danny Boyle up to?

* I don’t understand the desire for Mark Wahlberg to do a sequel to The Fighter. What is the point?

* Don’t be fooled by the cool trailer for Fast Five. The movie will suck.

* I wonder if Tom Hanks is done with his great movies, much like Harrison Ford and Robert DeNiro. It seems like these older actors get to a point where they want to make fluff more than they want to make serious films. Larry Crowne, Hanks’ new comedy…ish… film with Julia Roberts looks utterly forgettable. I feel like Hanks is too young to start mailing in movies like this.

* Hearing that there is going to be another American Pie sequel with the original cast members makes me die a little inside.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK, St. Paddy's Edition: My Left Foot (1989)

There are but a handful of Irish-based films to consider for St. Patrick’s Day. Having gone to Ireland, it is clear John Ford’s The Quiet Man is a celebrated picture. But I don’t think the film itself is necessarily a great picture. And there is In America, a story of Irish immigrants struggling to make it in New York. This is a great film, but seeing that its setting is New York, I felt it wasn’t the right choice. No, I needed something decidedly Irish from top to bottom, and a film that is great on top of it all. I came up with My Left Foot, perhaps the best “Irish” film ever made…

Jim Sheridan, acclaimed Irish director of My Left Foot, should be credited for what he doesn’t do in the film just as much as what he does do. My Left Foot tells the true story of Christy Brown, a brilliant poet, author, and painter who grew up in the slums of Dublin in a large, loving family. What is unique about Christy’s story is the fact he was born with debilitating cerebral palsy, and was only able to use his left foot as a means of writing and painting. Now, any story like this could be a disaster if in the wrong directorial hands. The sap and the melodrama could run too thick. But fortunately, Sheridan sees the story for what it is; Brown was no sort of saint who endured moments of great struggle as a young lad to become a brilliant artist. Brown was a bit of a scoundrel and a drunk, but a man who grew up as normal as possible thanks to the support of his family.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who would win the Oscar for his performance, plays Christy as an adult. As a child growing up in a poor area of Dublin, Christy was one of a handful of siblings to a loving mother and a father who refused to send his son away. Christy’s brothers push him around in a wheelbarrow as they play street soccer. He is often the goalie, using his head to deflect shots. Sheridan allows the audience to laugh at situations and puts us at ease in the face of Christy’s disease that may seem too intense otherwise. Mrs. Brown, Christy’s mother played by Brenda Fricker, knows in her heart there is something inside Christy waiting to break free; so when he picks up a piece of chalk with the toes of his left foot and writes a letter, she rejoices in her own calm way.

Christy must fight his entire life against his own body, a body that seems to want him out. He surges and convulses and twitches uncontrollably. He grows into a bit of a cantankerous artist, but some rebellion must be expected. He is a drunk, using a straw to sip the whisky he has stored in his coat pocket. But more importantly, Christy is a magnificent artist who is awarded throughout his life. Sheridan and Day-Lewis see Christy’s disease for what it is; an inconvenience rather than a sentence. The mind and the talent and the human nature are all present, and it is simply his physical stature that is flawed.

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the two or three best actors of all time, I am sure of it, and in My Left Foot he defines method acting. Day-Lewis broke two ribs as he stayed in character on and off camera. He would have people help him with his food and would not even break from Christy to have a regular conversation with his agent. This fascinates me. Day-Lewis does this with every role, and to imagine him limping around as Daniel Plainview on the set of There Will Be Blood or strutting as Bill the Butcher during Gangs of New York is intriguing. I could not imagine staying in the character of Christy Brown. The physical act of doing this would be exhausting. But, I suppose, it takes a genius to portray a genius.

My Left Foot is not only a brilliant character study but a marvelous film that is inspiring without having to try. There are no grandstanding moments and no swelling musical score to cue the audience. There are some heartbreaking moments, as when Christy discovers one of his teachers who he was madly in love with does not think of him in that way and gets engaged, and there are some funny moments like the opening sequence when we catch a glimpse of Christy’s fiery personality. And it is this collection of moments that solidify into one captivating picture about the power of the mind, and how it can overcome the ailments of the body.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Best of Arnold Schwarzenegger

Since Arnold Schwarzenegger has turned over the reins of California to the next poor bastard in charge of fixing that state, he has made it known he will be getting back into acting. I don’t know about you, but to me the summer movie season felt a little different with the promise of an Arnie flick on the horizon. I decided to look back at the action star’s career and try and decipher his ten best. Of course, the ten best films of Arnold Schwarzenegger are a bit different than most because, well, several of them aren’t that great. They are great, however, in the high-octane world of Schwarzenegger, where catchphrases and one-liners and testosterone-fueled action and adventure takes priority over quality cinema…

10) Kindergarten Cop – Like I said, not all of these are really great films. But they are great Schwarzenegger films. Kindergarten Cop exists on a premise and fleshes itself out from there. What a mine field of comedy is the big hulking macho man being placed in a world of women and tiny toddlers. Without Kindergarten Cop there wouldn’t be much of a career for The Rock or we wouldn’t have Vin Diesel’s The Pacifier. Take that however you would like. The running jokes involve the physics of a giant person teaching four-year olds. And haven’t we all heard the line “it’s not a tumah”? Comedy aside, the police plotline at the heart of Kindergarten Cop involving a criminal trying to get kidnap his son is pretty serious and quite compelling for such a throwaway picture.

9) Commando – This one was a favorite of my childhood. Commando might be the most ridiculous film on the list, but it is quite fun and definitely a product of the 80s. Arnie plays John Matrix (what a tough name that is) a former military tough guy forced back into action when his daughter is kidnapped and he is forced to carry out an assassination. What is so fun about Commando is the pure absurdity of the action. Schwarzenegger jumps from the bottom of a plane AS IT IS TAKING OFF, he rips a full-length phone booth out of the floor, he demolishes a mall. But the best part of it all is the extended climax, where he takes on an entire army of militias by himself, loaded down with hundreds of pounds of artillery. Arnie mows down extras faster than they can pop out of their whack-a-mole holes.

8) Twins – So I suppose the most solid aspect of Schwarzenegger’s comedy pictures is the physics of the situation. Here, again, Arnie is a giant with a twin brother who happens to be the smallest full-grown actor in the world, Danny DeVito. The specimen of Schwarzenegger is played up here, with the shady dealings of DeVito working as juxtaposition. Of course it is the hulking size and stature of Arnie that is the running joke here, but the way he plays Jules to DeVito’s Vincent is also the polar opposite. His naivety makes him an easy target for fodder. But there is heart at the center of Twins and an evolution of the DeVito character that makes this a sweet family comedy everyone remembers.


7) The Running Man – Adapted from a Stephen King novel (under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man is a clever science-fiction film that feels authentic in some ways, especially given our societal obsession with reality TV. In the future, the biggest hit on television is The Running Man game show where criminals race against the clock and fend off elaborately-conceived super villains. Arnie is, of course, a wrongly-accused man forced to compete in the game. And of course he is a match for the flame thrower, the weird electric opera-singing killer, and the hockey playing slayer. The Running Man is pretty ridiculous, but it sure is a lot of fun. Especially with the great Richard Dawson cheesing it up at the host of The Running Man.

6) Conan the Barbarian – Was there ever a better part for Schwarzenegger to play than a barbarian? Well, one other one comes to mind but we will get to that in a minute. This was one of Arnie’s earlier movies, and spawned a sequel that is atrocious and just plain weird. But the original Conan, a legend steeped in comic-book lore, is a dark and brooding and very atmospheric fantasy film. Conan is sold into slavery as a child, but he grows into a badass warrior who looks to take revenge on the warlord who killed his family and destroyed his village. With a supporting cast including Max Von Sydow and James Earl Jones, Conan the Barbarian carries with it a bit of prestige as a real film.


5) True Lies – Somewhere around here is where Arnie’s films begin to improve substantially. Stepping away from the Terminator series, Schwarzenegger and James Cameron teamed up to film this wild and seriously fun spy adventure. Arnie plays a mil-mannered family man who leads a double life as the top spy for the country. There is a plot involving terrorism that drives the story, but there is also an ingenious subplot involving Arnie’s wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who may or may not be cheating on him with a dolt used-car salesman. This subplot adds some comedy and a human touch to the story. Again, the action is completely bananas and over the top, but it is all within the realm of the picture and somehow it works.

4) The Terminator – This film belongs high on this list simply for the legend it created. The Terminator is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature character. Is it because he is a robot and need not act on a certain level? Perhaps. In this original Terminator film, Arnie plays the evil robot sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor before she can give birth to the rebel resistance leader in the future, where there is a war waging between man and machine. There are a number of iconic moments in The Terminator, beginning with the genesis of Arnie’s most popular one liner: “I’ll be back.” For its time, the special effects are quite good, especially the scene where Arnie performs surgery on his robotic exoskeleton in a seedy motel bathroom.

3) Total Recall – This Paul Verhoven-directed sci-fi action film is a complex, ambitious, thrilling mind trip. This might win the award for the most inventive of all Schwarzenegger plots. Adapted from a Philip K. Dick story, Total Recall involves processed vacations in the mind, unearthing the past, and spy adventures on the planet Mars. Verhoven is well known for camp excess in his films, and here he has a field day with the science-fiction aspects of Total Recall. Mars is a fascinating place here, one of the planets being utilized as a vacation planet in the future. Schwarzenegger is spot on as Doug Quaid, a man trying to uncover his spy past amid a rouge’s gallery of villains and ghouls and annoying robotic cab drivers.


2) Predator – These last two films in the list are great films in their own right, not just the best of Schwarzenegger’s spotty career. Predator is an excellent action film with the perfect blend of 80s machismo, science fiction, and one of the ultimate showdowns in action-film history. Arnie plays the leader of a band of military experts sent into the jungle to raid a group of guerillas. Once the raid is complete, however, they soon realize they are being tracked by something superior to them in military skills and technology. Director John McTiernan employs the Jaws theory to the predator, unveiling him completely much later in the film. Early on he is invisible and stealth. The action is some of the best of the decade.


1) Terminator 2: Judgment Day – Consider this 1991 sequel to The Terminator a watershed moment for special effects and summer action flicks. T2 has Arnie playing, wisely, the good terminator this time around. He is sent back to protect what is now a young John Connor from a new-model terminator that is much more efficient and much more wicked. Aside from the fantastic action sequences, the groundbreaking special effects, and a real relationship between the characters here, Terminator 2 also carries with it the weight of a true science fiction film concerned with confronting real issues of technology and fate. This is the high point of James Cameron’s career as an action director (Titanic aside), and also the most complete Arnold Schwarzenegger film.