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The Last Stand (2013)

June 5, 2013

3/10 Old Guns

Well, boys and girls, even the great ones take a mulligan.

The Last Stand is about a Mexican drug lord/bonafide speed demon who gets captured by the FBI and is on his way to the courthouse, shackled and escorted in an armored car. But thanks to his friends in low places, he escapes from the Feds en route and heads off to the border in a hyper-charged Corvette. Despite their best efforts, the Feds are continually foiled as they try to stop him. It seems that all hope is lost, that their man’s gonna get away and make a fool of the FBI. But standing in the way of his freedom is the border town of Sommerton Junction, home to an Austrian immigrant-turned-badass cop-turned-small town sheriff and his ragtag group of bumbling deputies. Being a town of upstanding folk who don’t take too kindly to trigger-happy cronies, they gather up their resources and try to stop this damn fool from getting away.

On any other day, I gladly would have avoided this one and continued my life, free of regret. It’s High Noon starring The Terminator and Johnny Knoxville, and that was all the convincing I needed. The truth is that as much as I can appreciate everything that makes Commando so magical, I haven’t exactly yearned for those glory days to return. It was the ’80s, and I think that says it all. Then again, it was only a matter of time before Ahnuld left office, so let’s not kid ourselves because we knew this day would come.

But the thing about Ahnuld is that this sad, sad Verdict isn’t his fault. Sure, he has absolutely no place in a story like this, but I get why he’s here. Where there are guns and one-liners, there will always be a place for Ahnuld. This is his bread and butter. Now if  only he’d been paired with those dudes who did Crank, maybe things would have gone better.

Speaking of not belonging, The Last Stand is directed by a man named Kim Jee-Woon. If the name’s not ringing any bells, quit your job, clear your schedule and start getting familiar. For a country that’s been mass-producing some phenomenal young film makers as of late, I can only hope that Kim Jee-Woon is regarded as a goddamn national treasure in South Korea. I’ve only had the pleasure of watching two of his movies, but whenever someone’s asked me for a Netflix Instant recommendation in the past two years, The Good, The Bad, The Weird and I Saw the Devil have been my go-to’s without fail. As much as I love me some Luis Guzman, Kim Jee-Woon is the sole reason I gave this a chance.

That’s because – in my humblest of opinions, mind you – Kim Jee-Woon is the best damn “action director” out there right now. Can’t blame the producers who wanted him to helm something like this and props to them for knowing a great thing when they see it. The problem therefore lies in why he would want to be part of something like this, something that’s so clearly beneath him.

This is Kim Jee-Woon we’re talking about, the exceptionally talented and outrageously entertaining writer/director who in just two movies made a stronger impression on me than any other director in recent memory, save of course Jeff Nichols. This is like going from Head Chef at Chez Quis to thinking outside the bun at your friendly neighborhood Taco Bell. This, dear readers, is Bizarro World.

The upside of the situation is that when it’s time to start cooking with gas, Kim Jee-Woon provides. Whether it’s a high-speed chase through a corn field or a convoy of Escalades filled with (surprise!) heavily-armed gunmen, it certainly has its moments. Unfortunately, those moments are all-too brief, they’re gratuitous as all hell and are constantly broken up by lengthy scenes that couldn’t be more uninteresting. In short, they pale in comparison to what Kim Jee-Woon is capable of.

But it’s not really his fault either, as there was only so much he could do with the material provided. Because the more I think about it, the more I just can’t deal with this sloppy-ass script.

Take the role of Federal Agent John Bannister. Bannister is played by one Forest Whitaker, and judging by the way this movie’s been marketed, one would believe that his role would be a mere afterthought to the screen time that Ahnuld and his Gatling gun are afforded. Lo and behold, such is not the case. Instead of staying put in Sommerton where things are halfway decent, a good 50% of the movie is spent in Whitaker’s action-less command center where his efforts behind a desk are foiled time and time again. No idea why that is, no idea why screenwriter Andrew Knauer decided to move away from Ahnuld to give us this sorry excuse for a police procedural that no one even wanted or asked for.

Nor do I have any clue as to why Knauer takes this so seriously so often. I’m all for taking things with a grain of salt, but it’s not often that I wish the screenwriter had. Definitely not the comeback that his leading man was hoping for, definitely not the international breakthrough for the director here either.

Nevertheless, Ahnuld is fine and he’s the only one who can at least do something with the shitty dialogue he’s provided. Johnny Knoxville continues to annoy, not sure why Harry Dean Stanton bothered with this, but again, it’s always nice to see Luis Guzman gets some work.

Before I wrap this up, allow me to reiterate: I can go for some quality, mindless action just as much as the next guy. I can’t freakin’ wait for Machete Kills to arrive and I swear on the beard of Chuck Norris that I’m not writing this from the perspective of a movie snob. But even with expectations as low as they were, I’m surprisingly bummed by how much I didn’t enjoy this. It didn’t even have the decency to be laughably bad, and that’s just insult to injury.

Speaking of which, I probably could have handled the structure and substance being a total-effing-catastrophe, if only one of my favorite directors hadn’t been involved. As you’ve likely gathered, I wasn’t hoping for greatness from The Last Stand, I was just hoping for some fun. But alas, such is the audacity of hope.

Pretty sure that’s what Obama was talking about.

Epic (2013)

May 31, 2013

6/10 Tree Keepers

Wasn’t on my radar, but it wasn’t half bad.

Epic is about a young girl who moves out to the boonies to go live with her estranged father. As for why they’re estranged, all signs point to his obsession with the itty-bitty forest-dwellers that he thinks are living in the surrounding woods. Naturally, everyone including his daughter doesn’t believe him, and before long it, it just becomes too much for this poor girl to handle. She packs up her stuff and plans to move out when, lo and behold, she’s magically transported to the world of the forest-dwellers. Turns out, they’re as real as can be, and next thing she knows, she’s the protector of a mystical flower bulb that will supposedly save the land. So with the help of two forest soldiers, they move to deliver that bulb to its rightful place before the forces of evil turn their paradise into a wasteland.

Yup, can’t say I was planning on seeing this one, but I guess that’s what being a good older brother is all about. I don’t know, with so many studios out there trying to piggyback off the success of Pixar these days, I wasn’t holding my breath for the latest effort from the Ice Age crew. But since Pixar ain’t exactly firing on all cylinders these days either, I guess didn’t have much to lose. And while this sorry state of affairs hasn’t changed at all since the credits rolled, it’s hard to get bent out of shape over a kind-hearted movie such as this.

As the plot might have tipped you off, the double-edged sword to this story is that its derived from some movies that did it a whole lot better. Right off the bat, everything about this lonely gal living among inch-folk just reeks of The Secret World of Arrietty. As soon as things get bite-sized, it goes head-first into the secret world of FernGully. Sure, this time it’s a girl instead of boy and the bulldozers have been replaced with a tamer breed of Uruk-Hai, but yeah, originality’s not its strong suit. However, it is does have one unique thing going for it.

You know how houseflies are pretty much impossible to swat with just your bare hand, how hummingbirds move faster than your brain can fathom? Turns out, there’s a reason for that, a reason no one else is privy to except for this girl’s wacky dad. As it just so happens, house flies, hummingbirds and these tiny forest people live on a different plane of time than the one we know and love. As a result, their wold operates at about four times the speed as ours does, which means things in our world move awfully slow by comparison. Hence the need for flyswatters, hence the reason her old man has had such a tough go of proving that these tiny dudes exist.

Call it a gimmick, but it’s actually pretty neat as long as you don’t try to dive too deep into the logistics of it all.

And not for nothing, but it is a nice story. The quest to save the forest is entertaining enough and there were a couple sticky situations where I was admittedly stumped as to how the good guys would overcome. And while that’s all well and good, it’s the strained relationship between this girl and her father that actually makes the movie. It’s much more mature than I was expecting since it’s not everyday that a CG wife leaves her CG husband, and it ultimately proves quite genuine as well. Wasn’t breaking out the Kleenex like it was Toy Story 3, but I’m glad they spent more time on this relationship than trying to convince us that it’s totally cool for a life-seize girl to date a boy the size of here toenail.

Other than that, this script and its host of stock characters leave something to be desired.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the original Ice Age, but I do remember laughing quite a bit. On that note, it seems like the status quo for “kiddie movies” these days is that parents should be laughing right along. There’s certainly some leeway to be given, but one can only give so much. Despite its efforts, I barely cracked a grin, and just so I don’t sound like a total-freakin’-Grinch, my 10-year-old brother wasn’t grinning much either. Talking slugs and three-legged dogs only do so much for me these days. Definitely beneath what one would expect from Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd.

But hey, it all looks pretty good. Decent character models, lots of vibrant greens to look at, and the action scenes were actually quite impressive. Who’dathunk? Although I will say that the cast is a bit strange. I get Christoph Waltz as the bad guy, but as for what Pitbull and Beyonce are doing here, your guess is as good as mine. Is Pitbull the new Hanson or something? Did I miss that? Kids today…

Anyhow, I can’t say Epic had much of an impact on my life, but that’s okay, it works for what it is and at least it’s got heart. It’s no Arrietty, not by a mile. Still, take the kids, they’ll love you for it. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

May 24, 2013

8/10 Executive Decisions

Boldly going where we’ve already been before. But not really. But kinda. You know what, who cares? It’s awesome.

Star Trek Into Darkness picks up with Captain James T. Kirk being stripped of his command after endangering his crew on what was supposed to be a routine mission. Adding insult to injury, a former member of Starfleet-turned-space terrorist has gone and leveled the Starfleet archives building in future London. Things just get worse from there, so worse in fact that they reinstate Kirk’s post on the Enterprise and give him 72 space nukes to overkill this traitorous bastard on the far edge of the galaxy. But as Kirk and Co. home in, they soon find that all is not as it seems on the final frontier.

I’ve never had anything against it, but Star Trek was a show that never really grabbed my interest growing up. Never knew a Trekkie who tried to show me the light, and at the end of the day, there just weren’t enough lightsabers for little Aiden’s liking. It just sort of existed for a long time in my life, that is until the summer of ’09.

Going in, I didn’t know what to expect from that Star Trek reboot, the most I was hoping for was a fun time courtesy of the guy behind Lost. By the time it was over, I was high-fiving strangers with a mile-wide grin and throwing up the Vulcan salute on my walk home through Harlem. Four years later, it remains one of the most (if not the most) entertaining time I’ve ever had in a movie theater, the movie by which I’ve measured every summer blockbuster since.

Star Trek of all things. Couldn’t freakin’ believe it.

So yeah, Abrams had his work cut out for him with this one. And though I still haven’t done my homework by giving the show a fair shake, you can bet your ass I read the Cliff’s Notes this time.

That’s right, boys and girls, for the first time in my life, I finally sat down and watched The Wrath of Khan last week. Not only was it as good (and surprisingly moving) as everyone always said it was, but given all that it has in common with Into Darkness, it was awfully nice to have the base of comparison. The only catch to the situation is how I go about comparing the two without giving things away in turn.

For the sake of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that there’s no shortage of fan service in Star Trek Into Darkness. I can appreciate the appeal of throwing tribbles into the mix, but the more the story progresses, the more these nods to the source material start taking on a life of their own. For a majority of the movie, I was under the impression that it was more a reimagining than anything else. Just as he did with the whole Kobayashi Maru thing in Star Trek, it’s awesome to see Abrams create something that’s both recognizable yet new. The arguable downside to the situation is that it eventually starts to feel like a full-blown remake.

Not that it isn’t handled well enough, it’s just an easy road to take.

But all that aside, the fact remains that this was over before I knew it. The pacing here does not slow down and I couldn’t believe how the writers managed to keep raising the stakes to the heights that they did. Every other plot point is one of imminent life or death, each one carries an impossible solution, and before long, the flop sweats in my theater were well under way. It’s a freakin’ rush, man, and even though the wildest scene of the movie is oh so suspiciously similar to the wildest scene from Star Trek, there’s no use complaining about it. Familiar fun is fun all the same. Don’t quote me on that.

So yeah, the adrenaline rush most definitely comes standard and the good news doesn’t stop there. The other big perk of watching Khan was that I had a better understanding of the rapport between Kirk and Spock. Throughout all the space battles and plot twists, the friendship between these two makes for the emotional cornerstone to this story. I still think this new Spock is laying it on too heavy with the logic, even by Spock standards, but it’s nice to see them both get an equal an equal amount of time in the spotlight. After all, it’s that very friendship that ultimately made Khan so special.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about John Harrison, one of the best movie villains I’ve encountered in a while. Now, I appreciate Khan from Khan as much as the next nerd and there’s good reason why he’s widely considered the Enterprise’s greatest foe. But for all the terror he caused with his glorious pecs of steel, he was strangely flawed by his thirst for revenge given his superhuman intellect that he just had to remind everyone about. Dare I say he was one-dimensional, a quality that’s non-existent in John Harrison.

Since we’re already kind of but not really on the subject of Lost, Harrison reminds me a lot of Ben Linus, the best damn character to come out of that damn island. He’s the silver-tongued devil who’s playing all the angles before anyone else realizes there are angles to be played, and it’s a thing of beauty to watch him work his magic. He’s easily the most intriguing character of the bunch, and since that clearly wasn’t enough of an edge, the writers decided to give him superhuman strength to boot.

Did I forget to mention how fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch is? Lord almighty, does Cumberbatch destroy. Go watch Sherlock, you’ll get what I mean.

Although as caught up in him as we get and for all that he keeps us guessing ’til the end, the end felt a wee bit anticlimactic for such a daunting individual as this. Maybe it’s just me being the bloodthirsty bastard that I am, but it seems like Abrams decided that 10 was good enough just as he was about to turn things up to 11. Not sure what that was about.

Then again, bless his little heart for giving Peter Weller some much-needed work. The world is seriously lacking in the Peter Weller department.

Keep in mind, this is all coming from a relative ignoramus when it comes to all things Star Trek. At the risk of incurring the wrath of fanboys near and far, the general consensus on the last movie was that it resonated just as well with fans and outsiders alike. From what I’m hearing about this one, the reaction hasn’t been so universally groovy. Apparently some folks are miffed that Abrams has strayed too far from the roots of the franchise and turned it into something that would make Gene Roddenberry turn over in his space capsule. And while there’s only so much that I can attest to this claim, I know enough to dig where they’re coming from.

That underwear scene with Alice Eve? You trippin’, Damon Lindelof.

But as someone whose fondest memory of Star Trek was a reboot from a guy who’s now responsible for Star Wars, I had myself a damn good time. It’s not going to stick with me like the last one did, but that was to be expected. Experiences like that don’t come around too often. Still, as over-complicated as it gets, I like that I enjoyed this entry for a lot of the same reasons as the last one. And as far as memorable villains go, talk about a quantum leap from the likes of that jerk Nero.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

May 22, 2013

7/10 Old Sports

Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.

The Great Gatsby is about a non-judgmental young man who moves to Long Island in the roaring ’20s. He sells bonds during the day and returns to his modest shanty at night, right next to door to one of the wealthiest men in West Egg. Soon after arriving, he reconnects with his cousin across the bay, a woman who’s now married to a wealthy, bullheaded philanderer. Not long after, he receives a invitation to one of the notoriously lavish parties that his neighbor is so fond of throwing. Next thing he knows, he’s chumming it up with the host and going on bonafide bro dates with him to speakeasies in Manhattan. Turns out, this Gatsby fella’ has a history with the young man’s cousin, so in the spirit of being a good neighbor and all, the young man gets these two kids back together as they try to rekindle a love once lost.

I know it, you know it, and we all had to read it in high school because it’s the great American novel. Some may take issue with that sentiment, but with each new time that I’ve read it, the love has continued to grow. So with that being said and for a good two years now, I had been dreading this movie’s existence.

Two years ago was when I first heard that Hollywood was bringing Gatsby to the big screen again. Though initially intrigued for all of one second, my interest changed to sadness when Baz Luhrmann entered the frame. Now, The Great Gatsby is a novel that I adore for its subtlety, and last time I checked, Moulin Rouge! ain’t what you’d call a think piece. Of all the people that they could have gotten to adapt this, they get an Australian with a glitter fetish to lead the way. The logic eluded me, and by the time I heard it was being filmed in 3D, all foreseeable hope was lost.

Yep, wasn’t getting my hopes up for this one, no use beating on against the current. But then it went and caught one hell of a lucky break.

In addition to revisiting the source material, I figured I’d go the extra mile by finally taking a look at the 1974 version of Gatsby (“the Robert Redford version” as folks tend to call it). What I found was a sentence-for-sentence adaptation that was so mind-numbingly boring I had to stop watching it halfway through, and I never do that with a movie. It was one of the most drawn-out, lifeless movies I’d ever seen, one that even The Sundance Kid himself couldn’t salvage. So with that sour taste still fresh in my mouth, the prospect of Baz Luhrmann suddenly sounded quite sweet. Heck, if Meyer Wolfsheim showed up in a sequined unitard belting “Like a Virgin” halfway through, it still couldn’t be worse than that garbage I couldn’t finish.

Nevertheless, the skepticism lingered.

When it starts off with Nick Carraway holed up in a loony bin battling a long list of afflictions that start with “morbid alcoholism” of all things, the skepticism didn’t wane. Then we go back in time, back to when Nick was still a wide-eyed broker during the height of prohibition. The scene is one of opulence, of a culture driven by alcohol and excess. It’s an in-your-face imagining of life in The Big Apple and one that plays a much greater role than the one created by Fitzgerald. But unlike the Redford version, it’s alive. It’s fun.

As you’ve likely gathered from the trailer, this vision of extravagance is a theme that carries throughout. No expense is spared from one scene to the next, it moves at an oddly breathless pace at times and it’s understandably an approach that’s been dividing people across the board. After all, The Great Gatsby was never great because of the characters’ surroundings, it was great because of the characters themselves. This is not how Fitzgerald would have imagined it and some of that subtlety would have helped.

Then again, we already got the subtle version in ’74, and though I can’t speak for everyone on the matter, it was pretty effing horrendous. And is it really all that surprising either?

I’m of the mindset that some stories just don’t warrant adaptations, that we should just enjoy them in the medium they were intended to be enjoyed in and leave it at that. There are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, I believe there’s good reason why certain stories are told as novels rather than movies and vice-versa. The Great Gatsby works as a novel because Fitzgerald worked as a writer, and with that in mind, there was only so much that the Redford version could achieve.

I can appreciate the temptation that comes with approaching something of this stature and adapting it through a cut-and-paste process. After all, it’s perfect the way it is, so why fix what isn’t broken? But since there’s just no one-upping the source material in a situation like this, going with what’s familiar and hoping for the best is ultimately a naive temptation.

And that’s why Luhrmann works. Even with an unnecessarily lengthy run time of 142 minutes, he succeeds because he makes a Baz Luhrmann movie instead of a bland re-telling that anyone could have made. There are times when it becomes too much of a Baz Luhrmann movie and things get a bit too dramatic or flashy for their own good, but he still stays true to the heart of the story without smothering it along the way. It’s easy on the eyes, it isn’t nearly as abrasive as Moulin Rouge! was and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he has a swell cast to work with.

The best thing I can say about Leo is that he’s a fitting Gatsby, which is the most I was really hoping for anyway. He’s at his best when Gatsby reveals his true self as this inviting, level-headed individual that Nick and Daisy would naturally gravitate towards. In my humble opinion, that’s when Leo’s always at his best, when he finally relaxes and acts with pretense. Not that his performance suffers when Gatsby’s putting on airs, I suppose it’s just another instance of wishing Leo would take more roles that would let him lighten up. Dude just loves playing the headcase.

Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is a fantastic Nick Carraway. Maybe that’s because Nick’s such a level-headed character from beginning to end, but Tobey does a fine job of embodying the qualities that make him such an engaging narrator. As much I’d love to see an adaptation that’s completely devoid of Nick’s narration (if only as an exercise in showing, not telling), I really liked the way it turned out here. It doesn’t come off like someone’s reading from the text (looking at you, Sam Waterston), it sounds like it’s coming from the mouth of Nick Carraway. And while I’m still not sure how I feel about Nick suddenly becoming Gatsby’s best friend during the last 10 minutes or so, it’s hard to fault Luhrmann on that one. All depends on how you read that last chapter, really.

Always nice to see Isla Fisher get some work and Joel Edgerton has it down pat as Tom Buchanan, the rotten sonofabitch that he is. Carey Mulligan is also good as Daisy, which is a complement and then some with Mia Farrow’s unfortunate performance as my only base for comparison.

Two years ago, I never would have imagine writing a review like this. But that’s one of the great things about Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, that for everything we’ve always loved about it, there’s no right way to read it. I don’t expect Luhrmann’s Gatsby to garner the same kind of acclaim over time, and since I doubt this is the last time I’ll see it adapted to film, I can’t imagine it’ll be regarded as the be-all-end-all interpretation. Man, I don’t even expect to be in the majority with this one and nor could I argue with those who find it a travesty. But considering that the novel is a work without equal, it was refreshing to see Luhrmann make it his own. And for a movie that I seemingly had every reason to loathe, you can color me impressed by the end result.

In respect to great video games and literary classics, the masses place greater value in…

May 20, 2013


Apologies for the long title, had no idea how to phrase this thing.

I didn’t really know what to say when Roger Ebert passed away last month, mainly because there’s only so much you do a life like his justice in a mere blog post. Ultimately, paying tribute to his greatest point of contention with the interwebs seemed like a fitting way to go about it. As an avid reader and a lifelong gamer, I still don’t know where my preference falls on this one, but that’s not really the point now, is it?

There aren’t too many film critics, let alone public figures, that take  it upon themselves to ask these kinds of questions and prompt such interesting, cross-generational discussions. Roger Ebert was one of the exceptions to that rule. It’s no mystery why he’ll always be considered as the go-to reference for just about every movie out there, because it’s rare and it’s special to find someone who could write and voice their opinions the way he did. He set the bar, and because that just wasn’t enough, he was model human being to boot.

It’s because of him that silly little blogs like this are possible, it’s because of him that film critics have a place in this world. I don’t know about you, but that seems like one heck of a legacy to leave behind.

– A great video game: 31 votes
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 24 votes

Swell voting, folks.

Upstream Color (2013)

May 17, 2013

8/10 Natural Instincts

Well that was different.

Upstream Color is about a woman who finds her entire being under the control of a stranger after falling victim to a drug unlike any other. When she’s released from her high, she finds her life in shambles, unable to recall what she’s done or who’s to blame. Not long after, she crosses paths with a man who, unbeknownst to her, has gone through similar circumstances. Their connection is undeniable, they start going steady, and as she tries to pick up the pieces, he helps her to remember where things went wrong.

So it’s been almost a decade now since Shane Carruth was kind enough to grace us with his debut effort, Primer. For those who haven’t seen it (especially those who dig time travel), it’s high time you took care of that situation. But for those who have, I think I speak for the majority of us in these next few sentences:

Primer may not have been the time travel movie we were expecting or used to, and it probably took more than one viewing to truly appreciate/wrap our heads around it, but once we drank the Kool-Aid, it was hard to deny everything that was so damn brilliant about it. It was further proof that you didn’t need a big budget to astound, that all you need is a great idea and an intelligent script that wasn’t afraid to do something different. Oh yes, it was something else, and we’ve been waiting very patiently to see what Carruth would do next.

And while the meat of it couldn’t be more different, a lot of the things that make Upstream Color so magnetic are the very things that I adore about Primer. Yet for all that the former has in common with the latter, the odd thing about it is that it’s utterly unique.

Now, I’m no expert on the matter, but if you’ve ever wanted a crash course in experimental film making, this isn’t a bad place to get acquainted. Right from the start, it’s all very strange, and under someone else’s direction, the end result could have been very, very stupid. Surrogate swines, hypnomaggots and telepathic teens are just a few of the colorful things you’ll encounter here, and as weird as it all sounds, it works for what it is. As for why it works, all praise be unto Carruth.

It’s because he tells this story with intention and care, letting his audience do the legwork rather than baby them along so that everything’s crystal. It makes all the difference, and with each seamlessly-constructed scene that drives the plot forward, he provides us with just enough info so that we know what’s going on. It’s just enough so that if you’re not paying attention, it won’t be long before you’re hopelessly lost, and even if you are paying attention, you’ll only be able to fool yourself into thinking you get it. Oh yes, it leaves much to interpretation, but it’s all so unusual and it leads us on so well that it’s straight-up hypnotic in turn. It’s less like watching a movie than it is an abstract painting in motion.

What can I say, as nice as it is to just look at and absorb, it’s even nicer to be treated like I’ve got a goddamn brain. If this is the payoff, I’ll take the head trip every time.

From the outset alone, there’s a whole lot to account for. But as for what it’s really about, what it all really means, your guess is as good as mine. As you can imagine, it makes for one hell of a talking point and it’s the kind of thing that folks will likely be talking about until Carruth follows it up in the year 2023. Unfortunately, the catch is that as much as I could throw back a couple beers and talk about this sucker ’til I’m slurring, I imagine that’s its a pretty hard sell for those who aren’t intrigued.

As it likely goes without saying by now, if you’re looking for a straightforward moviegoing experience driven by true-to-life conflicts and relatable resolutions, steer the hell clear from Upstream Color. The only movie I can imagine comparing this to is Eraserhead, and that might be a crap comparison considering that I’ve never even seen it. I wasn’t expecting to make two David Lynch comparisons in two consecutive reviews, but yeah, this has got some Lynch in it. At any rate, it’s an iffy movie to recommend if only because it’s so contrary to what we’re used to getting from this industry. But by the same token, that’s a big reason why I’m so taken with it.

Maybe it has to do with Steven Soderbergh name-calling Shane Carruth in his glorious tirade on the “State of Cinema,” but it seems that we need Upstream Color now more than ever. Because for everything that I love about movies, the way movies are approached is terribly formulaic and it’s a formula that is rarely strayed from. It’s gotten to the point where originality and talent have fallen to the wayside so that we can remake more stuff that doesn’t warrant a remake, and I think we can all agree that that’s just bad business. Not to say that it’s a bad formula as it’s proven to work like gangbusters over the years, and though I’m aware that movies are indeed a business, it is first and foremost art. If anything, Upstream Color is a damn good reminder of that.

I don’t know, I just never understood why that formula became “the norm” and why there aren’t more film makers out there trying to go against the grain. That’s why I’m still defending The Tree of Life and those goddamn dinosaurs, and that’s why Upstream Color does warrant a recommendation: because it’s bold, it’s unfamiliar and it doesn’t compromise on its vision.

I don’t expect everyone to dig this one as much as I did, and that’s perfectly understandable, perfectly okay. It ain’t the most accessible movie of the year and it’s a short list of friends that I would have invited to see it with me. The relationship between these two characters could have used some work, too. At least give us some smiles, guys.

Then again, that’s not really the kind of movie this is. In immediate hindsight, that’s actually a petty-ass non-complaint to even bring up in light of everything else that succeeds here. For me, the lasting impression was more one of appreciation and admiration than escapism or enjoyment, and holy hell, is there no shortage of things to appreciate and admire. So as I stand here on my soapbox, raging against the status quo, still wondering what it all means, one can’t help but be hopeful about the State of Cinema when there’s artists and originals like Carruth to shake things up.

It’s definitely not the movie that I was expecting it to be, but hey, conformity’s for suckers anyway.

Best Movie Ever – Episode 11: Venetian Blinds and Exorcisms

May 15, 2013

Well hello there, boys and girls! Apologies once again for the delay on this sucker, but rest assured, we are still very much alive. This week on Best Movie Ever, we’re talking about the perks of upgrading to Bluray and the ringing in Evil Dead with The Best Most Disgusting Scenes Ever. It’s lots of fun for the whole family to enjoy, so strap grandma to the roof and click on that banner already!

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

May 10, 2013

6/10 Sins of the Father

For chrissakes, bring the Zoloft.

The Place Beyond the Pines is about a traveling stuntman who winds up back in Schenectady, NY after being on the road for a year. He runs in to a girl that he hooked up with the year prior, and much to his surprise, discovers that he done got her pregnant. So he quits his death-defying job at the carnival and tries his damnedest to be present in his son’s life, or at the very least financially provide for him. But since biking with carnies doesn’t look great on a resume, it isn’t long before he starts robbing banks let and right. Next thing he knows, a heist goes awry and he crosses paths with a local cop who has an infant son of his own. From that point forward, their lives – and the lives of their children – become unalterably intertwined.

Before I went to see this, just about everyone I know who beat me to the punch had told me how disappointed they were. From what they’d been led to believe, they were gearing themselves up for a cops-and-robbers picture starring three of planet Earth’s most ridiculously attractive people. And when you consider that it’s being marketed as that very same movie, I really can’t blame them for getting their hopes up.

Because while banks do get robbed and Cooper chases Gosling, the only real truth to the situation is that everyone is ridiculously attractive (and even that one’s a stretch at times). So if you’re expecting to have your adrenaline pumped, then you’re setting yourself up for a letdown. But if it’s a generational drama about fathers and sons that you’re after, well today’s your lucky day. Really helps to know this stuff ahead of time, and now that we’re all on the same page, the million dollar question is how it fares as is.

As for the answer, well I guess I’m still working on it.

To give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with here, this script is structured in a way that makes it feel more like three movies than one. The first Act revolves around Gosling’s character, the second Act revolves around Cooper’s character and the final Act revolves around their sons. It’s highly unusual and I can imagine it won’t gel with certain folks (especially those who aren’t expecting it), but it actually works a whole lot better than I figured it would.

After all, given the attention-grabbing nature of stick-ups and all, it was almost disappointing to see the focus shift over from Gosling’s story to Cooper’s. By the time it happens, we’re already invested in Gosling’s character and we’re used to having him in the spotlight. Although if Hitchcock could pull it off, so can Derek Cianfrance. And while the shift is awfully sudden, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Cooper’s storyline was just as compelling as his co-star’s.

Alas, it’s hard to go into details about either of these storylines without giving something away, but the connecting thread between these two fathers is their habit of doing “bad” things for the “right” reasons. And as it interesting as it all was in the moment, it wasn’t until after that I really started to appreciate it.

As is usually the case with characters like, oh, I don’t know, Walter White, much of the appeal is generated by the moral ambiguity surrounding them. Folks tend to form their own opinions about characters like these, and even if they do, oh, I don’t know, cook meth, it can be hard not to sympathize with them (or even like them) at times. But, again, for reason I can’t get into, I felt like these two were pretty cut-and-dry judging by how they acted and reacted to everything that came their way. For me, the wrongs that they committed were grounded in such a grey area that their good intentions and the steps they take to make things “right” were enough to make me overlook most of their flaws. Unfortunately, it’s also a viewpoint that ended up muddling things for me towards the end.

Anyhow, that was the long and short of it, so when I finally made my way out of the theater and with the assumption that we were on the same page and all, I asked my wife what she thought about these two fellas. But wouldn’t you know, she had a totally different opinion on the matter. Alright, maybe it wasn’t totally different, but it varied enough to make me reassess some of the heavier stuff Derek Cianfrance puts them through.

So in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, it wasn’t until my wife chimed in that I realized how open to interpretation this movie is. Not only did it serve as one of my more eye-opening cinematic discussion points in recent memory, but I haven’t been able to get it off my mind since. It’s an uncommon strength that can be hard to do well, one that actually reminded me of Do the Right Thing. Furthermore, I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there that’s been mulling this over at length either. So yeah, it’s definitely got that going for it.

As a character study of sorts, it left me with no shortage of things to work out. And from its beautiful, eerie score to the way it quietly fades from one scene to the next, there was a lot about this movie that also reminded me of David Lynch. Throw that open-ended nature into the mix and you’ve got a style that really works, especially with everything taking place in the underbelly of an idyllic American town, the kind of place you’d expect Frank Booth to crawl out of. Oh yes, everything was going swell alright, right up until that damn final Act.

Now whether it’s turning to a life of crime or turning on your fellow officers, Gosling and Cooper are all about making drastic decisions in the first two Acts of this movie. As suspect as their decisions may be, they’re easy enough to justify since Gosling and Cooper have their backs against the wall when they make them. But when their sons take over in the last half-hour, the decision-making process changes from one of parental desperation to adolescent peer pressure. Just like their dads, these kids take some pretty drastic measures, but unlike their dads, the justification isn’t there thanks to the paper-thin motive that is peer pressure. As a result, it often feels more like drama for the sake of drama.

From one measure to the next, my wife and I found ourselves exchanging glances of frustration, shaking our damn heads in silent agreement. “What the fuck are they doing?,” we thought to ourselves, hoping for some kind of reprieve from the soul-crusher we’d entered into. And after a good two hours of smooth sailing, I can still only wonder as to why things took such a turn for the over-dramatic?

Speaking of over-dramatic, allow me to introduce you to Bradley Cooper’s son, A.J. He’s the one on the left in that picture down below, and rest assured, he is a douchebag. Not to say that douchebags make for bad characters, but in light of how believable and engaging every other character is, his entire being borders on intolerability in turn. At the risk of poking a beehive, he reminded me an awful lot of Telly from Kids, hands-down one of the most loathsome characters I’ve ever come across in a movie. It’s not that characters like Telly and A.J. are unrealistic or don’t have real-life counterparts who are just as ingratiating as they are, it’s that they come off more like caricatures than actual people. And if you’re trying to tell a real story about real people, caricatures are just no bueno. Really not sure why he was written that way.

But like I said, every other character and the individuals who play them are top notch. This might be the best performance of Bradley Cooper’s career, it’s business as usual for the great Ryan Gosling, and Dane DeHaan continues to be one to look out for. And as much as I like him, I can’t help but feel bad for Ben Mendelsohn. How many times is this poor guy gonna get typecast as the token slimeball? Starting to worry that he’s just stopped bathing at this point. Of all the roles to get pigeonholed into…

With all that being said, I realize that the Verdict up there might not be lining up with all the positive things I’ve had to say about The Place Beyond the Pines. And while there’s certainly a lot to appreciate, the one thing that’s stuck with me most is what an overly-punishing movie this was to sit through. I think the last time I’ve watched so many people make so many poor life choices like this was with the world’s worst brothers in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. As much as I liked that movie, it’s not one I plan on seeing twice. And like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I don’t know if The Place Beyond the Pines’ achievements are enough to outweigh its increasingly depressing qualities.

When I think back to what a buzzkill Blue Valentine was, maybe it’s my own fault for not mentally and emotionally prepping myself for Cianfrance’s sophomore effort. Then again, that last half-hour got way out of hand, and as the end closes in, you’ll be bracing yourself for the absolute worst. Still, I liked The Place Beyond the Pines and it’s a movie that I think will grow on me throughout the year. But at the end of the day, is a little bit of levity really so much to ask for?

Thank god I married a hugger.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

May 8, 2013

8/10 Empty Shells

Glad to have you back, Tony.

Iron Man 3 picks up with our genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist struggling to keep it together after his near-death experience in The Big Apple. He’s staying up for days, he’s having panic attacks in public, and he’s too damn busy with his suit collection to give Pepper the time of day. Folks, it ain’t good. On top of all that, an international terrorist who calls himself The Mandarin has been wreaking havoc in the US because the President’s a jerk or something. Next thing you know, Tony’s calling the dude out after his best bud almost gets vaporized, and things just go south from there. So after learning the hard way why don’t give your address to terrorists and with everything in his life hanging in the balance, Tony starts to rebuild.

Now that we’ve had some time to properly reflect on the matter, I think we can all agree that the last time we caught up with Tony in Iron Man 2, the overall experience left something to be desired. Don’t get me wrong, Iron Man was no easy act to follow, but following it up with one big teaser for The Avengers was not what the doctor ordered. It was a letdown alright, but in the spirit of letting bygones be bygones, here we are with our very first entry in a post-Avengers universe. And given the way that one went, one couldn’t help but be hopeful about this.

The first upside to life after The Avengers is that we’re finally done with all those goddamn Easter Eggs. No more nerds twerking in the aisles over Mjolnir showing up, no more waiting for the credits to end just to have Sam Jackson pay us another visit. I can’t speak for the masses on this one, but all that hooey was never much of a draw to begin with, and with each year we got closer to assembling these fools, it was becoming more about fan service than telling good stories. But that’s all over now. Now we can rest easy until The Avengers 2.

As for the current state of the Marvel movie universe, we’re left with the lingering effects of those Chitauri jerks as evidenced in the form of witty asides and Tony coming to grips with his own mortality after, you know, setting off a nuke in space. Oh yes, it’s a big ol’ upgrade from the way it once was, even if it doesn’t add all that much to the story here.

On that note, am I the only one who thought that Tony didn’t seem phased by almost dying and whatnot? For chrissakes, the dude was housing shawarma not ten minutes later. Well apparently it was a way bigger deal than he was making it out to be because it’s now the driving force behind his fragile state and is a big factor in why he throws down with The Mandarin. And I get it, now that he’s got Pepper he’s got more than just himself to worry about, but it still seems kinda weak as far as character development goes, especially considering the long list of inner demons that Tony’s had to fight in the comics. Not to mention the handful of times we’ve almost seen him die.

So Tony’s anxiety certainly isn’t the best thing this story has going for it, but that’s okay, because this here is a Shane Black picture. Shane Black knows what he’s doing, and if that name ain’t ringing any bells, it’s high time you did your homework.

For all you out there who have yet to see Iron Man 3, do yourself a favor and go watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang first. It’s a great little number by Shane Black (our writer/director of the hour) and it’ll only make you appreciate what he does here that much more. Before the credits even start, you’ll know this is one of his movies just from the sound of Downey’s rambling voice-over. Being familiar, being a fan and knowing full well that no one reads a Shane Black script quite like Robert Downey Jr., it was an awesome way to start things off. But alas, the excitement is short-lived.

See, the thing about the first Act of Iron Man 3 is that it feels a lot like the entirety of Iron Man 2. From side characters to side plots, mental states to past encounters, the first Act is juggling a bunch of things at once and doing its best to establish them all within a 30-minute span. Here’s what Tony’s new suits can do, here’s the people you’ll want to remember for later, yada yada yada. It comes with the territory on occasions like these and Joss Whedon proved that it could most definitely be done. But since it doesn’t give itself any time to breathe or play to Black’s strengths as a writer, it just feels rushed as a result. At least it affords a couple moments for Downey and Jon Favreau to chew the scenery, but these are also the best scenes by a mile and they just made me wish there was more to go around.

Given how attention-grabbing that opening monologue is, it’s too bad that the first Act rings more like Shane Black writing a Marvel movie instead of a Shane Black writing a Shane Black movie…that just happens to star Iron Man. The end result bordered on vapid and it was concerning enough to have me bracing for what followed. But, boy howdy, did things start righting themselves once that first half-hour wrapped up.

From that point forward, it goes right back to being a Shane Black movie, one that only gets better by the minute. The dialogue gets funnier to the point where I was laughing out loud from one-liner to one-liner, the plot goes in some wonderfully unexpected directions that would make Chris Nolan nod in approval and now I’m still wondering whether it’s better than Iron Man? As much as I dig that movie and everything it did right as a blueprint of sorts for this genre, there’s really something unique about the chances this one takes.

At the end of the day, it’s just a winning combination of writing, casting and directing that couldn’t be better suited for a franchise like this. Shane Black can write some snappy dialogue; no one can deliver it quite like Downey. Downey’s playing Tony Stark; Tony Stark is all about the snappy dialogue. Need someone to play the best villain in the series? Good call getting Ben Kingsley to steal the freaking show. Want to riddle your movie with some of the most creative and exciting action scenes in recent memory, scenes that at times rival those in The Avengers? Double good call giving the reigns to the creative genius behind Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Just some good calls all around, really.

Yeah, it takes a little while to get there, but once the juices start flowing, this sucker’s firing on all cylinders. And with the exception of that first Act that’s easy enough to overlook when all is said and done, I can’t think of a damn thing worth complaining about. Maybe it doesn’t do character development as well as Joss Whedon did and I guess I can understand how some purists out there might be tiffed about some of the liberties it takes. But as someone who knows next to nothing about the source material, I really wish more movies of this sort would take liberties like these. This was a pleasant surprise, and even if I had been into the comics, I’d be surprised if I thought otherwise.

Not only that, but coming off the heels of a disappointing sequel and existing in the wake of Marvel’s magnum opus, Iron Man 3 had more reasons to fail than succeed. Yet succeed it did with flying colors. Kids, what can I say other than that it’s a total blast, it’s a bonafide crowd-pleaser and it’s a pretty swell way to kick off the summer. I wouldn’t call it “deep” by any means, but hey, that’s what Man of Steel is for.

The point is, a mighty good time was had by all and that’s more than enough to earn this baby an 8.

Shane Black and Ben Kingsley, man. Truly a thing of beauty.

Mud (2013)

May 2, 2013

9/10 Homeless Romantics

And the love continues to grow…

Mud is about a country boy who lives down on the river with his ma’ and pa’, not over in the city with those damn townies. His parents’ marriage is on the rocks, girls are a downright conundrum, and when he’s not helping his old man sell fish, he’s hanging out with his best friend, Neckbone. One day, the boy and his friend go exploring down the river in their dinghy. They come upon a deserted island and discover a motorboat that got lodged up in a tree during a flood. Much to their surprise, they meet the mysterious drifter who’s been living in that there boat: a smooth-talking fella’ who calls himself Mud. Rather than tell his folks or the authorities about his chance encounter, the boy decides to help Mud get off that island and reunite with the love of his life. But thanks to a whole bunch of bad dudes who are looking to looking to kill Mud, the boy winds up putting his neck on the line in the process.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually not too far off from Huck Finn in a lot of ways. And given that this is a Jeff Nichols feature, that isn’t all that surprising.

If the name isn’t ringing any bells, then prepare yourself for one doozie of a statement, because with only three movies to his name, Jeff Nichols might be the best American director out there today. I don’t expect everyone to start nodding their heads in unison on that one, but in my humblest of opinions, the writing’s on the wall.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of American-born film makers who’ve been doing their thing and doing it well long before Nichols entered onto the scene six years ago. But the thing that sets him apart  from the bunch isn’t that he’s from Little Rock or that he just happens to make great movies, it’s that no one is telling American stories like his, stories born out of the DNA of our culture.

First, there was Shotgun Stories, a Southern-fried family drama about violence begetting violence from one generation to the next. Then there was Take Shelter, an extraordinarily subtle character study of a good man struggling to do what’s right for his family at the risk of his own well-being and reputation. With Mud, we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned coming-of-ager about the innocence of youth and the high cost of trusting others. Like I said, might as well come with apple pie on the side.

In this regard, it’s easy to see Mud as a natural progression of sorts, and it’s interesting because when I first saw the trailer for this movie I figured I had a good idea of what to expect. And while much of it is indeed driven by our boy Ellis helping our guy Mud and Mud’s true colors coming to light, it actually ends up being more about Ellis getting a hard-learned lesson on love.

I don’t know if that’s gonna come as disappointing to some, but it shouldn’t. Maybe it’s because, like Ellis, my parents also split up when I was younger and largely affected my worldview on love and relationships in turn. I totally got the way he acts around his folks, the conclusions he jumps to in his own love life and his instant attraction to Mud, the spiritual Sigfried that he is. Granted, I probably would have loved this kid if he’d been raised by the Brady Bunch, but given his circumstances and how he gives himself so honestly to those around him, it only made me care for him that much more. You root for the kid, you want to see his worldview realized and the same goes for all the people he depends on.

With that being said, it’s no stretch of the imagination to guess that not everyone in Ellis’ life lives up to the pedestal he puts them on. And for all the times that Nichols veers his characters away from trite behaviors and predictable circumstances, there are still a few occasions where the expected comes to fruition. On any other day, this could make for some awfully sappy moments that feel less like life and more like…something else. But not here, because on most other days we don’t get characters like these: recognizable people that aren’t prone to disappointment.

And that’s one of the other big reasons I’m so fond of Jeff Nichols: the way he keeps inadvertently highlighting the things that drive me nuts about a lot of other movies. More specifically, the overwhelming amount of characters who inevitably disappoint for the sake of creating drama and the ungodly amount of characters who talk for the sake of talking. And that’s the thing about Nichols’ characters: when they have something to say, they say it, and when they don’t, they don’t. A little goes a long way in this regard and it’s a rule of thumb that I’ve tried to emulate in my own life. Since they speak when they have something to say, the words that come out have actual thought and substance to them. Their frustrations are felt as vividly as their appreciations, and the end result makes something simple feel special.

Not to mention that it makes you so much more invested in a character and what they’re going through when their words have actual value. Folks, it’s a textbook example of actions speaking louder than words and the world would be better off if more writers got the memo.

At any rate, whether it’s the dialogue, the plot or the air of mystery that’ll keep you wondering right through to the finish, it’s just a fantastic script in general that plays into Nichols’ established strengths. Plus, it also happens to provide every member of his cast with some fantastic material to work with.

This really is one of those rare instances where it’s hard to single out just one performance because everyone’s operating at such an equally high level, and as far as problems go, that’s not a bad one to have. Matthew McConaughey gives one of the best performances of his recent “McConaissance” (really wish I could take credit for that one); despite being just his second feature film, it goes without saying I was quite the fan of Tye Sheridan as Ellis; and as far as big-screen debuts go, most kids would kill for a performance like the one Jacob Lofland gives as Neckbone (talk about some great names, huh?). Then there’s the absolutely hilarious turn from Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle (yes, that Michael Shannon); Ray McKinnon couldn’t be more convincing as Ellis’ old man; and what’s not to love about Sam Shepard? Let me tell ya’, folks, this one’s a keeper.

And bonus points to Nichols for putting one hell of an unexpected action scene together. Didn’t know the guy had it in him.

So this is the first 9 I’ve given all year, and while I’m sure there’s more to come, I’d be surprised if too many others end up leaving such an impression. On its own, Mud is one of the finer, more genuinely affecting coming-of-agers I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s refreshingly simple and it earns each of its praises in ways that I wish were more commonplace. Not only that, but it earns them across board. What can I say, I’m just a sucker for real movies about real people.

As the third effort from Jeff Nichols, it only furthers my admiration for the guy and bolsters my lofty hopes that, in due time, his contributions will be treated with the same kind of national reverence as those of F. Scott FItzgerald or the Coen brothers. Again, I may very well be in the minority on this one, but if all this acclaim is coming as news, Mud ain’t a bad place to start drinking the Kool-Aid.

After all, what’s more American than Mark Twain?

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