Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 6:34 pm on October 31, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 10/17/08)
Directed By: John Moore
Written By: Beau Thorne
Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris

If I’ve got my pop-culture/pop-technology history right, the concept of “bullet time” first became really popular in The Matrix, which then inspired the Max Payne video game, which made heavy use of the effect. Now we get a movie based on that video game, and the results are about as you’d expect: much less interesting than any of its inspirations.

I’ve actually never played the game, but from seeing the movie, I think I get a good sense of how it works. The script for this film, in fact, feels hardly removed at all from its video game roots. To get a sense of what I mean: during the climax, Max (Mark Wahlberg) actually “powers up” and achieves both super-human strength and a temporary invulnerability to bullets. Somehow, this isn’t quite as stupid as it sounds, because the film does a good enough job setting things up prior to that point that we’re willing to accept it in context, to an extent. Even the fight sequences seem very video game-like, with Max fighting his way through waves of nameless footsoldiers before working his way to the “boss” before delivering a modicum of dialogue. Unfortunately, a movie audience expects a bit more plot than the occasional cut scene after each level is completed, as I believe is common in this style of shooter game, and the direct translation of pacing which is employed throughout the second half of this film simply doesn’t work on the big screen.

Likewise, most of the plot points here seem like they’d be engaging enough in a video game—where the focus is on the action, with occasional breaks for story progression—but in a feature film they are just too generic to engage an audience who expects anything more than a series of shoot-outs. Not to mention how derivative a lot of it feels: there’s a conspiracy involving super-soldiers that reminds us of V for Vendetta, and a relationship the main character has with his friend (Beau Bridges) that seems stolen from Strange Days.

Back to the “bullet time” concept: director John Moore appears to have decided that since it’s become so commonplace ever since the first Matrix movie (e.g., this past summer’s Wanted) that he needs to use it in an unconventional way: instead of slowing things down so that we can see bullets as they fly past heroes’ heads, he chooses to go to the high-speed cameras before the bullets are fired, snapping back to realtime speed once the trigger is pulled. The result is a very awkward pace to the action sequences that employ this effect (of which there are surprisingly few), where we find ourselves wondering why things are in ultra-slow-motion all of a sudden while Wahlberg accomplishes a mundane task, such as peering around a corner.

This film succeeds in what I found to be surprising areas, with an intriguing first act and a lot of darkly interesting ambiance, punctuated by capable camera work that gives the film a sense of scope that its story ultimately isn’t able to live up to. Mila Kunis shows up in a role that’s much smaller than her second-billing might lead you to expect, but she’s good as a “bad guy” and all too cute while brandishing her gun. Mark Wahlberg is always a capable actor, and he’s good here as usual, his only failure being his choice of films to appear in. There’s a post-credits coda scene that’s pretty long as far as post-credits scenes typically go that seems to set up a buddy-crimefighters sequel featuring Kunis and Wahlberg. Judging by the reception this film has received, though—and deservedly so—I don’t think that’ll be coming any time soon.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:45 pm on October 28, 2008

As what I hope will be the final attempt required to get myself totally caught up on reviewing every movie I see, here is one more batch of capsule reviews. As most of these are now coming out on video, I’m hoping that this can still manage to be somewhat timely. A few of these I might write up in full at some point in the future, as I’ve got more to say about them but wasn’t able to find the time to do so while they were in theaters (mostly due to moving, but also from being overwhelmed by work at various points in recent months). I’m still using the same 4-star scale as always.

  • Leatherheads (***)
    This movie not only gives George Clooney a chance to demonstrate just why so many people refer to him as the Cary Grant of our time, but also to show that he’s a very capable director, as well. There is an expert pacing to the way this film is cut, maximizing the comedic effect of little subtle moments of humor, of which there are many. Seeing Leatherheads in Champaign was an interesting experience; it was an audience that knew precisely the details of who the movie was “supposed to be” about (Red Grange, of course), rather than the fictional Carter Rutherford character who is depicted with a gee-shucks charm by John Krasinski. The movie isn’t necessarily meant to be historically accurate, however (although Clooney’s Dodge Connolly is based fairly closely on the real-life story of Johnny “Blood” McNally), although it makes some very interesting and insightful historical observations about the development of professional football in this country. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel does a superb job of capturing the open expanses that defined America in the 1920s, and contrasting them with the burgeoning cities that would supplant them. I think that Renee Zellweger is miscast here as the would-be Hildy to Clooney’s Walter, as her idea of snappy repartee is more smug understatement than witty banter, but Clooney is more than enough to fill the frame on his own.
  • Smart People (**)
    Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker take somewhat of a backseat to their costars in this movie that can’t decide if it’s a romantic comedy or a coming-of-middle-age story. Thomas Haden Church overshadows them both with a charmingly funny performance as Quaid’s character’s unwelcome brother, and Ellen Page is the anti-Juno as his Republican-to-be daughter (the wardrobe department went above and beyond with her character—her sweaters provide some of the best laughs in the movie). Both of the main characters have too much trouble developing, though, to the point of causing undue audience frustration. They then take a sudden sharp turn at the end which feels too out of place as a transparent effort to neatly tie up everything at the film’s conclusion, which just makes it feel unsatisfying for its forced nature.
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall (***.5)
    The best of the Apatow-produced movies since The 40 Year Old Virgin, this one is a showcase for the many talents of Jason Segel, who not only wrote and stars in it, but also composed (and performs) the musical that forms one of its subplots. We also get to see the striking development of Mila Kunis, who here shows emphatically that she has progressed from the cute girl with a kind of annoying voice on “That 70’s Show” to a drop-dead gorgeous scene-stealer who we can only hope has more leading roles in her future. If not for a somewhat throwaway performance by Kristen Bell—who I think works better on TV than on the big screen—and a humorous yet at times overacted costarring role from Russell Brand, this would be damn close to the perfect romantic comedy: it’s funny, emotional, unique, and insightful. Segel mentioned in an interview on O&A that he initially wrote the musical that ended up in this movie “without any sense of irony,” and not only does that make its inclusion (and development) in the film even funnier, but it shows just how much of the real Jason we’re seeing up on the screen, too; that connection to reality comes through in this film in the best possible way, fleshing it out in a way that feels genuinely from the heart, because it is.
  • Baby Mama (*.5)
    Falling to the all-to-common fate of so many ill-conceived comedies, Baby Mama puts forth a funny enough premise and then fills in the blanks as generically as possible. Tina Fey is able to hold her own in a leading role, as a successful single woman who decides she wants to have a baby and turns to a surrogate to carry it for her. Sigourney Weaver is funny again (as we saw in Be Kind Rewind), as the surrogate matchmaker who sets Fey’s character up with the white trash couple who will assist her in her endeavor to become a mother. Romany Malco is tragically underused for comedic support, though, and Greg Kinnear‘s appearance as the vaguely hippie-ish love interest could not be less interesting. Steve Martin, however, is humorous as Fey’s character’s very hippie boss. The attempt at a meaningful romantic plot just gets in the way of the comedy, though, and the movie is all let-down after the initial comedic setup.
  • Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (*.5)
    A very disappointing sequel to the surprisingly funny Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, here we have repeated attempts to one-up the original in the “shock” department, all of which fail. There are a few chuckles here and there, but for the most part the blatant attempts to go “over the top” with the comedy fall flat. The one exception is Neil Patrick Harris‘s repeat appearance as a fictional version of himself, which goes over the top in the most hilarious of ways. After his appearance, though, the laughs are few and far between, and the ridiculous plot doesn’t do anything to make up for the jokes’ absence and ineffectiveness.
  • Iron Man (***.5)
    This very well may be the perfect superhero movie: it’s fantastical and exciting, but it bases itself enough in reality to not only be believable but to be somewhat relevant and timely as well. This is the role Robert Downey Jr. was born to play: the snarky playboy millionaire turned savior who can’t help but take credit for his good deeds. Jeff Bridges, surprisingly, is great as the villain. What this film really gets right, though, is in how it never loses sight of the human element behind the battling robots; in stark contrast to The Incredible Hulk, which asked us to feel for cheesy animated characters, here we are constantly shown the faces behind the iron masks, allowing the actors to continue to portray their characters even as they’re hidden in armor. Director Jon Favreau and the cabal of screenwriters that brought this film to life have also managed to remember that it’s still a superhero movie, and it’s still supposed to be fun and—most importantly—not too full of itself, something that The Dark Knight missed on. Throw in Gwyneth Paltrow as the sexy assistant, and a set-up for future sequels (including a post-credits coda featuring Sam Jackson), and there’s not much to dislike… as long as you don’t get too hung up on trying to make sense of the shaky plot device that resides in Iron Man’s chest.
  • What Happens In Vegas… (*.5)
    I suppose if you’ve never seen a romantic comedy you might enjoy this movie more than I did. Otherwise you’ll just realize that it’s the same recycled script we get over and over again with not much new or all that funny to make it worth your while. Despite the title, the movie barely has anything to do with Vegas beyond the first 20 minutes or so—and beyond that it’s no different from any other film in this genre. I imagine that the direction for Rod Corddry, who plays Ashton Kutcher‘s sort-of-funny, sort-of-a-douchebag friend “Hater”, was more or less, “Act like that funny self-deprecating husband character from Semi-Pro!” There are, in fact, several actors who pop up in this movie who are funny but for the brevity of their screen time, notably Zach Galifianakis, who always has a knack for awkward humor, and Dennis Miller as an unconventional judge who sets up the ridiculous circumstances of the story to begin with. The leads, however—Kutcher and Cameron Diaz—don’t have enough chemistry between them to carry the movie, especially when given such cheesy motions to go through. I think that even if this were the first movie you’d ever seen, you’d still see the ending coming from miles away.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (***)
    Despite what the endless amount of nerds on the Internet (and South Park episodes) might say, this is a worthy addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, and should be thoroughly enjoyable to anybody who is a fan of the previous installments in the series. The screenplay, by David Koepp from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, handles the amount of time that has passed since the last film perfectly: Indy is aged and acts appropriately so, and his reunion with Marion Ravenwood gives his character an extra dimension of maturity that we haven’t see before. The introduction of the Mutt Williams character is surprisingly well done, and he fits into the mix much better than I think most people expected he would. Cate Blanchett‘s Russian agent is cheesy and over-the-top, but in a way that’s fun and campy. The story is classic Indiana Jones adventure, combining ancient cultures and their mythology with the supernatural, and in true Spielberg tradition we see more than other directors would show, and it is effective at inciting a sense of wonder and amazement. If you’re the kind of person who can’t understand that this is supposed to be a fun adventure requiring a bit of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, then I’d have to question your fandom of any of the movies in this series and wonder why you were seeing this newest installment in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find enjoyment in the fantastic and the wondrous—or maybe just a classic adventure tale—then you should find this to be a fun movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.
  • Sex and the City (***.5)
    This is, to me, the best and most true adaptation of a TV series into a film since South Park. It does more than translate the feel of the series, it expands its scope appropriately and broadens its themes in a manner that’s more conducive to a longer, larger story. True to the HBO series, the plot revolves around love being lost and regained, and features complicated relationships that present validly two-sided conundrums. My primary disappointment in this movie came from the fact that several of the primary plot points were given away by the theatrical trailer, to the point where the first half of the film—involving a complicated setup that gives each of the four main characters a significant challenge to overcome—isn’t as surprising or interesting as it should be. You can’t fault a film for the way its distributors chose to cut its trailer, though, and as time distances memories of the trailer’s many giveaways from viewers’ minds, the script from writer-director Michael Patrick King will be able to stand on its own. Like the best episodes of the show, this story grounds itself in real-life scenarios, and the writing has a penchant for exposing dichotomies on many levels, which the pun-filled dialogue is frequently willing to play with. The conflicts are resolved in feel-good ways that nonetheless feel true to life, and this is an all-around satisfying and enjoyable film—whether you’re a fan of the series or not.
  • The Strangers (**)
    If, in making a movie that revolves around the question of whether or not your protagonists are going to survive, you open with a card that states, “The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known,” you’re essentially throwing down a gauntlet, claiming that you are going to present to the audience a story that is so gripping and so thrilling that they will still empathize with characters whose fate they are already aware of up front. In doing so, you better be able to overcome this self-imposed (and unnecessary) handicap with some damn solid filmmaking. Unfortunately, first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino isn’t quite there yet, and his debut film suffers as a result. He elicits a fine performance from Liv Tyler, and the home-invasion premise is realistically scary enough to produce some real jump-out-of-your-seat moments. The small, completely linear storyline becomes a bit repetitive, though, and the stereotypical, frustratingly dumb behavior by the main characters is as grating (and contrived) as in any horror film in recent memory. This movie to me is the definition of a borderline film targeted completely at a niche audience: if you’re into horror movies, you’ll probably appreciate the believable and more or less scary storyline (which is well worth comparing to Funny Games, a similar type of film that suffers from a far worse—and much more pretentious—shortcoming). If not, there’s probably not enough novelty to hold your interest past the first act. At least, not until the very end.
  • You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (**)
    Yet another example of the all too frequently-used formula “funny for the first 15 minutes, not enough story for the next 75,” this Adam Sandler vehicle at least has enough sense to save some jokes for the third act. In going so far over the top with its premise (Israeli special agent fakes his own death to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a hairdresser in New York City), it finds both surprisingly unique and disappointingly stereotypical sources for its humor, which occasionally manage to intersect. Almost all of the jokes here come from a cultural and/or racial basis, and it’s a fine line to walk: immigrants who sell stereos that they promise contain “Sony guts” from stores called “Going Out of Business” are funny, but Palestinians who are too attached to their goats are not (especially when the Palestinian in question is played by Rob Schneider, in yet another racial stereotype of a role). The jokes that remain are just repetitive: a guy effeminately cutting hair isn’t even that funny the first time, let alone the seventeenth—but at least in between we get to gaze upon Emmanuelle Chriqui, whose smile almost saves some of the redundantly unfunny barber shop scenes. And somehow, the writers find a modicum of cultural sensitivity in their story’s resolution… and then proceed to immediately negate it with a cheap stereotype of a joke. Sandler is surprisingly funny with the cheesy accent, though, and John Turturro is awkward enough as a ridiculous villain to be somewhat interesting. There’s a few funny cameos thrown in, as well. It just doesn’t add up to enough of a movie to consider it “good,” but like Sarah Palin at a debate it does manage to exceed its resoundingly low expectations ever so slightly, which some might see as a positive.
  • Get Smart (**.5)
    As Steve Carell continues to show us his surprisingly vast range as an actor (here, 1960’s TV-inspired slapstick), I keep waiting for a return to the understated hilarity of his performance in The 40 Year Old Virgin. He brings a bit of that to his portrayal of Maxwell Smart, who in this characterization isn’t quite as bumbling as I’d expected—here he’s more of an idiot savant, if anything. Anne Hathaway is pretty good as his sidekick, Agent 99, providing the right mix of comedic support and sex appeal. The whole cast, in fact, is good and funny overall. The story is quite run-of-the-mill, but serviceable, and the humor is good and chuckle-inducing. There’s nothing groundbreaking or surprising here, but it’s a nice fun comedy that would have additional appeal to fans of the original TV series, or fans of Carell.
  • Swing Vote (***)
    Sometimes movies are said to have a knack for individualizing broader issues in a way that makes them more palatable for general audiences, and Swing Vote takes that concept quite literally in a timely effort to wave the “every vote matters” banner during an election year. The premise is far-fetched, but presented well enough that we’re willing to go along with the idea that an election could be so contested and circumstances could align just right for a single man’s vote to end up deciding our next President. That man, of course, is Kevin Costner (as “Bud”), doing a variation on the same “aw, shoot” character he’s been playing for years. He very well may have it perfected here, and his costar (the young Madeline Carroll) does a fantastic job as the daughter who just wants to see her dad do something worthwhile and redeem all of his transgressions, which involve getting drunk, getting fired, being a negligent parent, and getting drunk some more. It’s all a bit trite, but well done and handled with a lightness that makes it clear nobody’s taking themselves too seriously. The film takes several jabs at the way campaigns are run in this country and our political system in general, with Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper doing fairly respectable renditions of the kind of full-of-shit candidates we’re all too used to by now. I don’t think this movie can claim much credit for rallying the masses in any way, but it is a good bet to put a smile on people’s faces.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (****)
    A return to form of sorts for Woody Allen in terms of subject matter, this is a thoroughly beautiful movie, beautifully shot by Javier Aguirresarobe, filmed and taking place in beautiful parts of Spain, and featuring four of the most beautiful people on the planet in roles that let them express beautiful feelings of love and jealousy and happiness and resentment. Oh, and it’s bitingly funny and remarkably touching, as well. The story is that of two friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who are vacationing in Barcelona for the summer when they encounter an artist named Jaun Antonio (Javier Bardem) who offers to take them to Oviedo for a weekend of tourism, good food, good wine, good music, and making love. Juan Antonio—as far removed from Anton Chigurh as a character could possibly be—is charming and cultured and remarkably handsome, and the women can’t help but take him up on his offer (Cristina excited about the adventure, Vicky cautious and skeptical and protective). What develops is a love triangle that feels like it could only have been written by Woody Allen, especially when it becomes more complicated with the introduction of Juan Antonio’s mentally unstable ex-wife (Penelope Cruz, in an Oscar-worthy role). The relationships intermingle (and I haven’t even mentioned yet that Vicky is engaged), and Allen is right at home exploring nontraditional forms of love and the many ways for people to find happiness with—and be hurt by—each other. These characters are elaborately realized, and although they are presented with playful narration that manages to keep the tone light, they repeatedly defy expectations and surprise us in always-enjoyable ways—sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, sometimes hilarious, but always feeling as complex and real as our own relationships. And yet, the sheer beauty of what is being depicted on screen maintains a classic Hollywood feel, producing the kind of real-yet-better-than-reality sensation that makes us love the movies in the first place.
  • Traitor (***)
    It’s nice to see Don Cheadle finally getting more starring roles (this his second in as many years as a headliner, after 2007’s Talk to Me), after serving as such an excellent character actor for so many years (speaking of that, I believe that my decade-old proclamation—which I have no way of proving I made, obviously—that pretty much the entire cast of Boogie Nights would go on to become top-billed stars in their own right has come true). Here, Cheadle is remarkably believable as a Sudanese-American arms dealer who gets recruited by a terrorist organization, leading to an exciting cat-and-mouse game with Guy Pearce‘s FBI agent. Cheadle’s character’s multiple dualities help him feel fully realized: is he betraying his former country or secretly working for them? Do his strong Muslim beliefs lead him to fight the war against the infidels, or to help prevent it from the inside? I really appreciated the mature and unstereotypical view of religion this film took, showing several characters who all pray to the same Allah interpreting his desires in completely different ways, and then contrasting this with the American FBI man’s own sense of faith and how it affects his decision-making. These issues lead to a personalization of a larger-scale conflict that is as timely as it is timeless, and the twists the story takes are interesting and believable, albeit a bit predictable.
  • Burn After Reading (***.5)
    Like a lighter Fargo, this is the Coen brothers at their convoluted best, featuring a dense multi-faceted script and several superb performances, not to mention a healthy dose of black comedy. We’re treated to another instance of George Clooney at his goofiest, not unlike his character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? in terms of erratic behavior and slick speech patterns, but with some new compulsions that find him in darkly hilarious circumstances. John Malkovich plays a pathetically funny character who is more echo than contrast to Clooney’s doofus, with the two doing a call-and-response routine of sorts throughout, building on each other’s bad behavior while going about their equally wrong endeavors in contrasting yet equally funny ways. The story delves into a remarkable number of surprisingly salient areas, from government secrets and espionage to the fragility of relationships and the difficulty of dealing with aging, but mostly the focus here is on absurdity, of which there is an abundance. Everybody in the all-star cast gets to give their personal take on one form of idiocy or another (Brad Pitt, for instance, is almost disturbingly believable as an imbecile), and the Coens know just how to manipulate them for simultaneous plot development and comedic effect. There’s a shot towards the end that is so reminiscent of Fargo that it feels like a directorial and cinematographic signature of sorts (although the two films were shot by different cinematographers), which could signal either laziness or maturation on the part of the filmmakers (I see it as the latter, as I assume was already clear). There’s also probably the funniest reveal of the year stashed away in Clooney’s character’s basement. If I described these two scenes in detail it’d probably sound like I was talking about two separate movies, but in the context of this film the disturbing and the hilarious are not often far removed from each other.
  • Righteous Kill (*.5)
    If anybody’s ever claimed (as I know I have) that anything starring both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino is bound to be good, writer Russell Gewirtz and director Jon Avnet are here to prove them wrong. The two veteran actors are phoning it in so thoroughly here that it gets embarrassing at times, most notably in the climactic scene that appears to have been contrived to feature De Niro in sweatpants just to make sure they weren’t putting the actor out too much by asking him to show up to the set those days. The script sacrifices believability in order to unnecessarily convolute its ending, and the fact that it’s all too generic up until that point ensures that the audience is in a pretty unforgiving mood when the twist comes. The premise of a cop who murders criminals who have been freed on legal loopholes is seemingly good enough, and there are a few moments each of decent humor and genuine suspense, but there’s only so much repetition—not to mention bad poetry (which is left behind at the murder sites)—an audience can take.
  • The Women (.5)
    A film that is so obviously an attempt to capitalize on the success of one that came shortly before it (in this case, Sex and the City) rarely succeeds, but this one had such a nice ensemble cast of talented actresses that I really attempted to give it a shot. Unfortunately I was met with little more than a gimmick that wears out its welcome all too quickly: writer-director Diane English goes out of her way to not put any males in this film (with one—admittedly cute—exception) to the point of annoyance, while also going out of her way to make her female leads as uninteresting as women in these characters’ positions, portrayed by actresses of this caliber, could possibly be. When Bette Midler shows up out of the blue in the middle of the movie, for a role that has no reason to exist in a situation that makes no sense, we not only feel like we’re being taken as gullible, but mindless as well. Avoiding men on-screen results in several discordant jumps in plot and character development, and the fact that these supposedly intelligent women characters all just want to carry designer bags and get their nails done anyway sort of makes them hard to sympathize with in their struggles against the patriarchy in the first place.

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Posted by mike in Film,Politics,Reviews at 9:43 am on October 21, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 10/17/08)
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Stanley Weiser
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: Josh Brolin, James Cromwell, Elizabeth Banks, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Ellen Burstyn

George W. Bush, even as an adult—even as the leader of the free world—still calls his father “Poppy.” In a way, this tells you all you need to know about Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s take on our current President. This film could’ve been called Daddy Issues, although that’s not as cool of a title as what they went with. It’s ostensibly a biography of W., focusing on how his relationship with his father—specifically his lifelong search for his father’s approval—shaped his political career. We see his story from his days as a drunken fratboy until he and his package declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The narrative begins roughly around the time the decision to invade Iraq was made, and follows the discussions leading up to that decision and what followed, while flashing back in time to show how W. got to that point.

There are some interesting choices made—as there are in any story like this—regarding which parts of Bush’s life and his Presidency to show and which to omit. I found it odd that so little time, for instance, was devoted to depicting his transformation as a born-again Christian. I can recall only two scenes between Bush and his pastor, neither as pivotal as I would’ve expected it to be. There were several depictions of prayer in the White House, though, and maybe it’s just me but I found them to be sufficiently telling. (Personally I found them to also be somewhat disturbing—I think a President leading a prayer in the Oval Office is about as appropriate as holding a fantasy football draft at a funeral home, and Stone’s repeated close-ups of hands clasped together give the hint that perhaps the practice is something he feels more people should be skeptical of, as well.) There is also very little made of his ownership of the Texas Rangers, although Stone makes an effective metaphor of Bush’s love of baseball (specifically, his ability to run down fly balls).

The timing of this film’s release isn’t as shrewdly-planned as it might have seemed only a few months ago, for several reasons: as the least-approved President in history we’re all ready to just let him go away (and hopefully quietly at that, before he screws anything else up), not to mention the fact that with the current standings in the polls, inciting outrage at the past 8 years is looking less and less necessary (although having lived through 2004, when a majority of the voters in this country looked at the biggest joke of a leader in this country’s history and said, “Gimme some more of that,” I remain doubtful of our ability to make the right decision until I see it actually come true… but I digress). This works to the film’s benefit, as it really isn’t trying to be the 2008 equivalent of Fahrenheit 9/11—which is to say, it seems to be genuinely attempting to chronicle the man’s life more than it is trying to skew the audience’s opinion of him as a President. If anything, the depiction in this film of President Bush is a sympathetic one: I found myself spending more time feeling sorry for him for his ignorance than I did hating him for his stupidity. This is due equally to the objectively hands-off approach taken by the script and direction, as well as Josh Brolin’s brilliant characterization of Bush, which is at once funny and sad, oafish yet at times slight, naive while simultaneously headstrong. Brolin gets to flex his ability as an actor, reveling in Bush’s mannerisms and speech patterns, which he has mastered in impressive fashion.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the rest of the cast, which is very hit or miss. Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Burstyn both play dignified First Ladies, and James Cromwell is as good as usual as the elder Bush (although he physically—and aurally—resembles the real man the least of anybody in this cast). Some of the depictions, however, slant more towards the caricature end of the spectrum, specifically Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, both of whom exaggerate their voice modulation to an almost comedic extent. Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Cheney and Toby Jones as Karl Rove round out the headliners of the cast and are decent in their respective roles, although they seem to have been cast as much for their physical resemblance to the real-life characters they are playing as for their acting ability. It’s nice to see Rob Corddry handle a serious role—albeit a small one—as Bush’s first press secretary Ari Fleischer. All of these are mere supporting characters, however, and the focus of the film is squarely on Brolin’s embodiment of W., which stands out above the rest not only due to screen time but due to the quality of the performance and the great amount of judgment Brolin exhibits as an actor, knowing when to play a line for laughs and when to play it for sympathy.

Speaking of lines, most of Bush’s best quotes are shoehorned into the script, and yet they don’t feel too forced. I was disappointed that they didn’t include a version of what, by my recollection, was the first of many “vacationing in Crawford” segments the news outlets grew so fond of early in his presidency, when he related a story of spotting an “armadillah” on his ranch. Maybe that would’ve been too much, though. After all, we already have to hear him beg his Poppy’s approval on several occasions.

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Posted by mike in Film,Religion,Reviews at 7:37 pm on October 19, 2008

Status: In limited release (opened 10/3/08)
Directed By: Larry Charles
Written By: Bill Maher
Cinematographer: Anthony Hardwick
Starring: Bill Maher

The message of Religulous is apparent up front, although for some reason director Larry Charles and writer Bill Maher choose to wait until the end of the film to explicitly state it: religion is a divisive, nonsensical, and damaging force around the world, and if we are to continue to coexist and progress as a species more of us are going to have to come to view all religions as the antiquated hogwash that they are. That I happen to completely agree with them only means I was looking forward to seeing this film, sought it out while it’s in limited release, and will hope that many others see it and—just maybe—are swayed a bit by it. That said, I attempted to view it objectively (as I do all films), and found it to be well made, but not without its problems.

The movie is split about half-and-half between Maher delivering monologues on the subject matter, and Maher conducting interviews with various religious people of various faiths and backgrounds. The balance is pretty decent, although the monologues are shot in a somewhat awkward manner, mostly in the back seat of a car as Maher travels around the world seeking out subjects for his interviews, with him speaking into the back of the driver’s head rather than looking into the camera. At times we see him standing at various religious sites, from Jerusalem to the Vatican to Salt Lake City, and again he’s speaking to somebody beside the camera more than he is directly to his audience. The technique, I suppose, is meant to be flashy or maybe even artistic; instead I feel it detracts from the content of what’s being said, and in a movie like this where any deviance from the message’s primary thrust will be misconstrued as a fault in the argument being presented, I think this is a major sin to commit.

Primarily, though, this is a comedy, and it delivers laughs in spades. The irony of ironies is that for the majority of its audience the laughs will be at the expense of every religion but their own: it’s those other people who’ve got it all wrong, with their kooky beliefs and ridiculous traditions. But of course the joke is on them the most: those who think their point of view is the most rational are also the most adept at serving as living examples of the depth of its irrationality. Maher is an expert at setting up his interview subjects to make fools of themselves, and he is happy to allow them to do so. “I’m just asking questions,” he says early on. The dissent to his argument will surely be, in part, a claim that he is only showing fringe elements of each religion, the bad apples in an otherwise virtuous group. It will quickly become apparent, of course, that this is not the case: Maher spends as much time with religious leaders as he does with the most common followers, and they all exhibit the same hilarious lack of reason in their attempts to justify their unjustifiable beliefs.

If anything, I actually think that Bill Maher goes too easy on the majority of his subjects (a complaint I occasionally have with his HBO Show, as well). “My thing is doubt,” he repeatedly points out. To me this is just an attempt to get his subjects to meet him halfway: they’re not going to admit that what they believe is wrong, but maybe they’ll admit that it’s open to a little more scrutiny than they’ve been giving it. Maher plays the part of the skeptic, but his stated purpose is only to make the point that nobody knows the answers, so maybe none of them should adapt such a certain stance. I think it would be more effective—not to mention even funnier—if he were to uninhibit his point of view, and allow himself to say, “I absolutely know that what you are saying is completely untrue” rather than, “well, we can’t be certain, can we?”

As a comedic survey of the current state of religion around the globe, this is a well made documentary told from the perspective of a skeptical interviewer. As an educational tool, it does a surprisingly good job (I was pretty surprised at how many gasps there were from the audience I was in when atheistic quotes from our founding fathers were presented, as they were lines that I personally was very familiar with, but the shocked response indicates that this must’ve been the first exposure many of these people had to such quotes). As an argument against religion, it presents many examples supporting its cause, but as the interview subjects repeatedly show, you can’t convince people to not hold to their beliefs when they do so without reason in the first place. Rather than getting frustrated by this, however, Maher is always able to laugh and to share his laughter with his audience, and in this he succeeds immensely.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:52 pm on October 16, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 10/10/08)
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: William Monahan
Cinematographer: Alexander Witt
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani

The international situation, as Tom Robbins wrote, is desperate, as always. The U.S. employs agents working covertly throughout the Middle East, seeking to infiltrate terrorist organizations to learn about their plans and the whereabouts of their leaders. One such agent is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), who we join in Iraq and follow to Jordan, where he will work with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the head of Jordanian intelligence, to track down the terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). Early on we learn that Ferris reports to a handler back in the U.S. named Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), and the two have several philosophical differences, not the least of which is Hoffman’s belief that informants are expendable if they get his agent closer to the ultimate target. This trio of characters forms a triangle of beliefs and methods, pulling equally in three directions that are ostensibly towards the same end.

Both DiCaprio and Crowe are right in their respective wheelhouses here, and Strong is a nice complement. Roger Ferris’s love interest, Aisha, is also portrayed quite capably by the lovely Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. The quality of the actors is matched by an overall polished production, with excellent camera work and editing that conveys the severity of the situations Ferris finds himself in without resorting to such annoyances as the “shaky cam” technique we’ve seen a lot of in recent years, or other such gimmicks. Ridley Scott knows what he’s doing, and every aspect of his film feels refined and well-executed, with the one exception being the script by Oscar-winner (for his remarkable screenplay for The Departed) William Monahan, who adapted the book by David Ignatius. There are many things he’s done well here, starting with the dialogue that consistently manages to temper the potential for getting too cheesy without sacrificing dramatic effect. He allows his characters to make points about our world and the aforementioned international situation—which, as usual, is desperate—without having to recite speeches like they’re in a junior high debate class.

The moderate shortcoming of this story, though, is in the plausibility category. The relationships Ferris forms with every other character he encounters are for the most part a bit hard to buy, from the doctor who he woos while receiving a shot, to the hard-ass intelligence director who he convinces to give him one chance too many, to the low-level terrorist operatives who play into his plans as if they were pieces on his chessboard. Ferris, in general, is able to manipulate entire organizations single-handedly, to the point where it’s almost hard to imagine that terrorists are still able to thrive in the region with him on the job. Some of the tools he employs (other than his wit and powers of deception) are a stretch, as well. I don’t know if the CIA really has satellite or spy plane technology as good as what’s depicted here or not—and I know cell phones don’t work nearly this well—but I’m willing to accept it in the world of the movie to a point; overusing such devices, though, grows somewhat old eventually, and Body of Lies allows itself to fall into that trap.

The “ripped from today’s headlines” story is intriguing and interesting, though, and when told with such adeptness as is on display here, it’s easy to overlook some minor shortcomings and allow yourself to get wrapped up in the espionage and suspense. Just don’t assume that it’s all that realistic, despite being depicted as such, and it’s an enjoyable, timely thriller. Until the wholly implausible ending, that is.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:35 pm on October 12, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 10/3/08)
Directed By: Robert B. Weide
Written By: Peter Straughan
Cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton
Starring: Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Gillian Anderson, Jeff Bridges

In a way, I feel for a guy like Simon Pegg, a really funny comedic actor who obviously wants to be taken just a little more seriously as a dramatist, but seems to already be typecast based on his early success (in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). How to Lose Friends & Alienate People seems like it might be just what he needs: it begins by asking him to parade about as an obnoxious fool, and then attempts to transition him into a sympathetic romantic. To his credit, Pegg is able to handle this surprisingly well: we are just as apt to believe in him as the object of Kirsten Dunst’s affection late in the film as we are to see him as the source of her disgust in the early goings. It’s just that the script, loosely based on the memoir by Toby Young, doesn’t have enough going for it to hold the transition together, or to maintain the audience’s interest throughout.

Pegg plays a fictionalized version of Young (here named Sidney), who comes to New York when given an opportunity to write for a big-name magazine by its editor (Jeff Bridges). By the time he gets there, we’ve already seen him engage in several ridiculous acts of slapstick, and the trend continues throughout the first act. He has a knack for shamelessly embarrassing himself at parties, which gets him on the bad side of everybody he works with, including a fellow staffer at the magazine (Dunst) who is repulsed by his over-the-top behavior, a beautiful and shallow actress (Megan Fox), and her publicist (Gillian Anderson).

Just when Sidney’s juvenile antics have gone past the point of monotonous repetition, he somewhat inexplicably suddenly achieves massive success with the magazine, through a shady arrangement with the actress and publicist. And although the only reason he’s been writing about Fox’s character in the first place was because he wants to have sex with her, somehow the success this endeavor brings causes him to suddenly become introspective and fall for his coworker instead. The movie then takes a massive left turn, swinging from screwball to romantic comedy. As mentioned, Pegg is surprisingly capable of pulling this off—and Dunst, of course, finds herself right at home—but it’s too big of a shift and too jarring a difference in tone. What we get is the equivalent of a big stomp on the brakes, and suddenly find that whereas at least the redundant humor was what we signed up for, now we are just encountered by a generic romantic love tale. What’s especially disappointing about it is that the movie goes so far out of its way to show us just how despicable a character Sidney Young is during its first two acts, to the point where there’s no way we’re going to all of a sudden buy the sweet girl in his office suddenly seeing him in a new light in its third.

Such unevenness is par for the course here. Making a movie like this is a fine line to walk, of course: too much slapstick comedy gets old pretty quickly, but space the laughs out too much and you run the risk of losing your audience’s attention. To all but abandon the comedy in an attempt to shoehorn a “tried and true” storyline into your movie, though, is a surefire way to ensure that you alienate them as well.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 7:08 pm on October 5, 2008

As coincidence would have it, I’d planned on posting this review today prior to what happened last night. The movie in question just so happens to be painfully, humorously, appropriately titled.

Status: In theaters (opened 10/3/08)
Directed By: Clark Gregg
Written By: Clark Gregg
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald, Anjelica Huston, Brad William Henke

The oddest combinations of ingredients sometimes produce the finest end results, and Choke is a great example of the best possible outcome of such a circumstance. The story—based on a book by Chuck Palahnuik—touches on many disparate topics, drawing equal parts drama and humor from each: sexual addiction, childhood trauma, strained friendships, religion, and the compassion of strangers. The story is primarily that of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) and how he overcomes his many psychoses. Victor and his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke) work together as Colonial reenactors, and also attend the same 12-step program meetings together (Victor is a sex addict, Denny is a compulsive masturbator). Victor’s mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) is in a hospital for the mentally deranged, and Victor supplements his income in order to pay for her stay by conning people in a unique way: he forces himself to choke on his food at restaurants, to be saved by good Samaritans who tend to become emotionally and financially attached to the victim they’ve rescued.

It’s an eclectic mix of circumstances, to say the least, not unlike Fight Club in many ways, and the comparisons are inevitable. Both feature scenes of group therapy that are awkwardly hilarious, both have small but pivotal scenes on airplanes, both have main characters with abnormal occupations and problems (a detached insurance adjuster who suffers from insomnia, a detached reenactor who suffers from sexual compulsion). They also both hinge their stories around a psychology-based revelation, but to say more about that would be an unfair giveaway. The largest difference between Fight Club and Choke is that of budget: the latter takes place almost exclusively in confined spaces, on small sets with few extras. Director Clark Gregg and cinematographer Tim Orr make the most of this, allowing their characters to fill the screen in ways that bring their emotions closer to the audience while diminishing the potentially negative impact of the tightness of the sets. With lesser actors this style would not work, but Rockwell and Huston both exhibit masterful performances here, commanding the screen and demanding that you share in their characters’ feelings and turmoils.

While I don’t think enough can be said about how good Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston both are in this movie, at the same time I think that perhaps the most interesting and unique performance comes from Kelly Macdonald, who plays the would-be love interest (a similar role to Helena Bonham Carter’s in Fight Club, in fact—the character subtly drives the action and ultimately is the catalyst for the hero’s self-revelation). For much of the movie I thought that Macdonald’s acting was very awkward, finding it strained and hard to empathize with. Once her character’s full story is told, however, the pacing and timbre of her delivery throughout the film makes perfect sense. This is one of the aspects of this movie that, to me, makes it great: repeat viewings will open up the characters and give you a more full appreciation for their situations, as well as a deeper appreciation for the subtlety of the actors’ portrayal, particularly in Macdonald’s case.

It’s worth mentioning, I suppose, that this is not a movie for everybody. The humor it employs is for the most part fairly demented, be it as the result of depictions of sexual deviance or from the use of mentally deranged elderly people for comedic effect. Amidst this a very unique story is expertly told, and it ends up being as touching as it is humorous.

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Posted by mike in Predictions,Sports at 12:54 am on October 1, 2008

As is presumably understandable for those who know me, this is the most excited I’ve been about the MLB postseason in probably my entire life. That of course leaves a lot of room for disappointment, something that’s definitely not unfamiliar to me (as I’ve written before). Nonetheless, I’m sticking with my original pick of the Cubs making it an even century between World Series wins this year. But before the playoffs begin, I’d like to reflect upon my predictions briefly as they relate to the actual standings at season’s end before making some new predictions for the playoffs.

I was pretty close on the Senior Circuit, picking 3 of the 4 playoff teams correctly. I thought Joe Torre would give the Dodgers enough of a bump to make the playoffs in a weak division, and he did—although Manny Ramirez certainly helped as well. In the Central, I had it going down to the Cubs and Brew Crew, giving the nod to the latter (probably as an attempt to overcompensate for my inherent bias). I didn’t think it possible for the Mets to blow their division for the second year in a row (and for the Phillies to be the benefactors twice in a row, too), but sure enough, that’s where we’re at.

My Junior Circuit picks were much further off. I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking that Seattle would dominate the AL West, but that just means I have plenty of company in being as far off as possible. The Angels, instead, dominated the West and ended up with the best record in all of baseball, although it’s quite inflated due to the other three horrible teams in their division (look at the large discrepancy between actual W-L record and expected W-L record). My Central division choices were almost completely upside-down, but I must say I’m really happy for my friends who are White Sox fans that their team got in—not to mention how cool it is that this is the first time since 1906 that both Chicago teams will play in the postseason, giving us the chance for an El Train Series (although I don’t think that will happen). In the East, I gave too much credit to the arrival of a new skipper in the Bronx, discredited the Red Sox with thoughts of a World Series hangover, and wrote off the Rays along with everybody else.

So I ended up with only 3 of the 8 playoff teams picked correctly, which is no better than I did in 2007. Hopefully I can repeat my redemption from last year by calling the playoffs correctly again now that we know who the participants will be. (Allow me to preemptively apologize to my two regular readers who are named Mark and root for a team called the Sox…)

NL Playoffs

  • NLDS: Cubs logo vs. Dodgers logo
    I honestly think that the Cubs will continue to be the cream of the crop in the National League. Despite their hot bats, the Dodgers will be facing three consecutive ace pitchers, any of whom could be the #1 starter. I don’t think the Dodgers’ bats are hot enough to handle the Cubs’ rotation (not to mention their bullpen). Conversely, I think the Cubs can out-hit the best ERA in the NL. (Cubs in 3)
  • NLDS: Phillies logo vs. Brewers logo
    I think the Phillies are looking to bounce back from last year’s disappointment (as are the Cubs), and the Brewers are happy enough to have broken their 26-year postseason drought. The Brewers will win at least one game, just because they get to put C.C. Sabathia on the mound at least once more this season, but I think that’ll be about it. (Phillies in 4)
  • NLCS: Cubs logo vs. Phillies logo
    This will be a matchup of the two best records in the National League, and the games should reflect it. It’ll be a back-and-forth, hard-fought series, but with no curses or flukes or jinxes or any other bullshit involved, the Cubs will win their first pennant since 1945. (Cubs in 6)

AL Playoffs

  • ALDS: Rays logo vs. White Sox logo
    Will just making their first postseason in franchise history be enough to content Tampa Bay? I think so, but I don’t think the White Sox have enough talent to spoil it for them, although they’ll put up a good fight. (Rays in 5)
  • ALDS: Angels logo vs. Red Sox logo
    All streaks come to an end, and it’s probably time for Boston’s postseason dominance of the Angels to dry up. I don’t think they’ll be able to overcome injuries to Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett enough to be able to stop the best record in the American League (although, as I mentioned, I believe the Angels’ record to be artificially inflated). Just as in 2005, the Sox will bow out early in their bid to repeat as champs. (Angels in 4)
  • ALCS: Angels logo vs. Rays logo
    This may be the least-watched LCS ever, but it might be a pretty good one. I think the average game will be about 17-14, as there’s a lot of power in these two lineups (although there’s a lot of good pitching represented by these two teams, as well—particularly Tampa—so I could be wrong on that). Experience will win out, though, and the Rays can still consider the season a resounding success even without a title, so they’ll go quietly. (Angels in 5)

World Series
Cubs logo vs. Angels logo

WS2008 logo
In a matchup of the two best records in baseball, we should get all you could hope for from a World Series: plenty of good pitching, good fielding, and lots of offensive power. I know it’s lame to pick your own team to win, but I really think that this is going to be their year, so I’m sticking with the Cubs in a hard-fought series. I’ll allow myself to get a bit romantic and say that they’ll be able to win it at Wrigley. (Cubs in 5)

There are some great opportunities for quality matchups this postseason, not to mention some really cool would-be World Series matchups: the aforementioned all-Chicago battle; the potential for the WS to be played at the two oldest ballparks in MLB (Wrigley and Fenway); the chance for a small-market team (Milwaukee or Tampa Bay) to crash the party. Hopefully it lives up to expectations.

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