Archive for the 'Film Reviews' Category

22
Jan
10

Downloading Nancy: Review

vlcsnap-2010-01-22-00h50m37s8 Maria Bello has one of those familiar faces.  If you saw her at an airport, you might stop her and say, “I know you from some television show or some movie, but I can’t quite place where.”  I’ve seen her in roles here and there – looking at her filmography, I’ve seen her in Payback, Thank You for Smoking and a few other roles, but admittedly none of them were particularly notable.  When it comes to Downloading Nancy, there’s no mistaking the fact if she didn’t have a signature film, she does now.  Despite a great all around cast, this is her film.

Bello is undoubtedly among the most attractive leading women in film today.  And while I’m not quite sure exactly what it was that attracted her to this script, one would assume that she must have felt the need to make a statement.  This is one of the most visceral, difficult-to-watch-yet-hard-to-turn-away-from while at the same time thought provoking and challenging films I’ve ever seen.  Ever.  Gone from Bello is the beautiful smile and naturally attractive features and replacing them are all the physical signs of a person who has no regard for her appearance and appears to be unashamed in her quest to do harm to her body.

To say that Downloading Nancy follows the life of a woman during “a difficult period in her life” would be a gross understatement.  The title character has been married to her husband Albert (Rufus Sewell) for fifteen years.  The director craftily provides glimpses into the past revealing how the marriage reached this point and we witness some of the worst evidence of neglect.  I’ve always listened to abused women on television declare that “he hits me because he cares about me”.  While I’m no closer to believing the validity of that statement and that mindset now than I was an hour and a half ago, I must admit that I understand a bit more the spirit of a person making that statement.  Albert barely acknowledges that his wife is even in the same room with him.  In on scene, he gets up from the dinner table and walks all the way around the table to get the salt and pepper shakers – a trip that could have easily been saved by simply asking his wife to secure them.  Rufus Sewell usually fits comfortably in the role of the villain in films and that baggage works to his favor here.  It’s painful to watch the neglect that he shows his wife.

There’s no other way to say it – Nancy likes to hurt herself.  She carries a box of razor blades around.  She takes advantage of almost any opportunity when she’s alone to inflict pain upon herself.  This extends beyond self-infliction and we learn that she connects with others online, sharing what she can’t share with her husband.  I have a pretty strong stomach for on screen violence or graphic content and I have to admit that the mere suggestion of what Nancy is doing – whether I can see where her hands are going or not – made me immensely uncomfortable.  This film is to our era what Star 80 was to it’s day.

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14
Dec
09

Humble Pie: Review

Humble Pie It’s not an odd thing for a film to affect me emotionally.  Anyone who knows me knows that it happens all the time.  But there’s something exceptionally affecting for me about Humble Pie.  As I mentioned in my Facebook impression, I so wish I couldn’t relate to the events in this movie.

Humble Pie is a completely fresh and uplifting look at a life considered by many to be ordinary.  Hubbel Palmer wrote and starred in the lead role.  Hubble plays Tracy Orbison – an early 30s supermarket worker living in a somewhat quiet midwest town who happens to be overweight.  The reason why Humble Pie struck such a chord with me is that it deals with being overweight in the accurate way that I and others knew and have known life to be and not in a fictional “Hollywood” sort-of way.  The “Hollywood” way would be to poke fun at his weight in a Nutty Professor or even Shallow Hal kinda way – then justify it with a moral at the close to remind people that it isn’t important ‘that these people don’t look like us – the key is what’s inside!’.  Sadly, little is ever done in these films to convince the viewer that their lives are remarkable.  I love Tracy’s character.  He lives amidst a mother who makes him feel as if he’s the biggest liability she has in life.  Tracy finds comfort in the relationship that he has with his sister, but being that she isn’t overweight (and, in fact, almost no other characters in the film are overweight), it’s very difficult for him to find anyone who can relate to his situation.

Tracy finds hope in life through his job at the supermarket.  And this is the beginning of what makes his spirit kinda awesome.  There’s nothing particularly exciting about his job.  But for eleven years, he works consistently and comes across as a pretty dependable person.  When he finds out that he’s being promoted, his reaction to the glimpse of sunshine in life has to make you smile.  Tracy really begins to find hope when he discovers an actor (William Baldwin) in a local performance of a play and identifies with the way in which he commands the stage.  Tracy discovers that the actor teaches a local acting class and decides to sign up and follow what he feels is his new purpose in life.

If you watch this film and are or have ever been overweight, there will be more than a few moments that I would imagine have drawn a laugh from some crowds, but will draw upon some pretty dark moments.  This film inspires hope for those who persevere.  No, there’s no montage where Tracy gets a workout tape and changes his eating habits and begins to exercise.  And no, there isn’t aren’t any makeover scenes or other significant life changing events happening here.  But the film did leave me with this: that despite how cruel some of his family, his friends, his co-workers and just random people he encountered were to him, his attitude remained even.  There were so many opportunities for him to just flip a table or punch a wall (or a person).  And theatrically, he would have been completely justified.  But through it all, he just plays this overweight, gentle six-foot beautiful spirit who’s trying to make the best of a situation that he doesn’t find particularly limiting.  It’s the behavior of the people around Tracy that makes life uncomfortable.

As mentioned, there were a lot of situations in the film that I truly wish I could not identify with.  I watched with incredibly mixed emotions.  There’s a script that I have been slowly writing that was trying to get to the heart of some of the things that I would imagine that Hubbel experienced and successfully wrote about in Humble Pie.  And there are a bunch of things in my yet-unfinished script that weren’t explored in this film.  But this film deserved more attention and I hope it finds new life on home video.  Having lived through some of the things that are in the film, it was painful but therapeutic to witness them onscreen.  But it’s all worthwhile if you watch this slightly over one hour and a half film.  There’s a poem that Tracy reads that was so moving, I had to listen to it twice.  If you’ve never experienced disappointment, this probably won’t resonate with you.  But for those who live lives that are less than ideal, persevere and endure, holding on until (as my Bishop would say), ‘they feel their help coming’, this poem is a beautiful way to end the film.

Humble Pie isn’t the story of every heavier person’s battle to live in a world where they are constantly reminded of their physical differences.  But this is a great film to watch and get a glimpse of some of the difficulties that life can impress upon you and the pain you can endure when you try to camouflage yourself among the masses, hiding under dark, loose fitting clothes.

14
Dec
09

Paper Heart: Review

Paper Heart Netflix thinks he knows me.  He’s always making these recommendations based on other films he’s known I’ve seen.  “If you liked Gone With the Wind and you also liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… well, heck, you’re gonna love this one!”  There’s something inherently mechanical and artificial about any system that tries to guess whether or not you’ll like a film.  Well, whatever the reason, somehow Paper Heart landed in my recommendations list.  And I’m starting to think Netflix knows me better than I know myself.

Describing Paper Heart is a difficult task.  The Netflix description had some word in it like “faux” or “mockumentary” that tipped me off to the fact that this wouldn’t be a completely sincere account of what was to come.  It starts Charlyne Yi as herself.  Who the hell is Charlyne Yi?  Well, she plays this musician/comedian who doubts the sincerity of ‘love’ as a true feeling and decides to couple with a crew to shoot footage in search of a deeper definition.  The real draw for most people is the presence of Michael Cera.  Cera is an immediately recognizable actor for anyone who has been paying attention to the young semi-independent movie scene for the past three years.  He’s probably best known for his work in Superbad and Juno and strangely here he plays… well, himself.

The film opens with Yi holding a microphone in Las Vegas and asking passers by about their definition and idea of love.  While this may not have been the intent, the insincere reactions that the passers by give to Yi sets her up to be a sympathetic character.  As you see her attempts to be taken seriously, you’d have to be heartless not to sympathize with.  She’s a 19-year old female of Asian decent, but let’s just say that she doesn’t possess ‘conventional beauty’.  After you spend a few moments with her, you sense that her mannerisms are quite odd – leaning heavily towards geeky or nerdy.  The fact that she identifies herself as either a comedian or a musician is strange considering that she didn’t seem to take the music that seriously and her comedy even less so.  All this said, I really grew to like Charlyne Yi.  Her beauty manifested itself in her freeness of spirit.  For me (as is the case with most people) a beautiful or ugly spirit drastically either enhances or detracts from your physical beauty anyway.  I liked Yi’s personality so much that I’m hoping her role in the movie was close to her real life persona.  It would be nice to think of how the world would be if there were more Charlyne Yi’s in it.

(It’s difficult to review this film without giving details about how it unfolds – so if you’ll trust me, I’ll try to give you a flavor for what hooked me without revealing the heart of the film.  However, if you just want to see this thing, stop here and check it out.)

The film develops with Charlyne subtlety and repeatedly (but not begrudgingly) expressing how she probably won’t ever experience true love.  To say she’s pessimistic about her love life is an understatement.  There’s even a shot of her parents on film trying to uncover the mystery of her love life.  To the viewer, it should be pretty obvious why she isn’t with a beau.  She has a strange and almost ‘performance-actor’-ish kinda personality.  As if she’s just kinda making it up as she’s going along in life.  What makes her likeable in the film is the genuine feeling she gives when she smiles.  Throughout the film, she finds small opportunities to create fun for herself.  She’s not overly concerned with her appearance.  (In fact, she’s not concerned with it in the least.)  She strikes me as a person who would randomly utter the most unpredictable and strange comments.  And it’s with this free-spirited approach that she and fellow filmmaker Nick Jasenovec set out to interview people about their definitions and ideas of love.  The feeling that the mockumentary seems to give us initially is that there really isn’t any script or even a storyboard for how the film will build or conclude.  They’re just kinda making it up.  That is, until Michael Cera steps on the scene.

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03
Nov
09

Paranormal Activity: Review

paranormalFrom the moment that I first saw the marketing around the movie Paranormal Activity, I knew I was in for a unique experience.  A wise man once told me that you should be careful what you let into your sight, because some things you can’t erase from your mind.  It’s been the case with a few events in my life.  And it’s certainly should have been a quote that entered my mind before watching Paranormal Activity.

Before I elaborate on all the ways in which this experience etched a spot on my brain that I hope will dissolve some time soon, I need to preface this by describing the type of person who would NOT enjoy this film.  And it’s nothing personal — everything isn’t for everybody.  But I’m a bit disturbed to see in this day and age the number of people who consume media and don’t allow themselves to be entertained.  When you see Peter Pan live on Broadway, sure it’s easy to spot the wires hanging from Sandy Duncan’s waist.  But it’s a lot more fun to allow yourself the pleasure of the enjoying experience.  Folks tend to be taken aback a bit to learn that, although I barely watch it anymore, pro wrestling is something that I enjoy and have enjoyed watching since I was young.  “Uh…don’t you know it’s….um….fake??” Yes, I understand that it’s scripted.  I also understand a lot more about the art of coordinating and timing each sequence to tell the audience a story.  It’s an art.  And that doesn’t mean everyone has to appreciate it.  But you have a much better chance of appreciating it if you don’tover analyze and instead try to find something to appreciate about what you’re consuming.

Usually this is the place where I guess I’m supposed to say, “But, I digress….”  And I realize that I’m belaboring the point.  But the key to appreciating a film like Paranormal Activity is to forget the fact that the people onscreen all have profiles on iMDB.com and several have other film credits.  The key is to simply watch the experience without any expectations and with as little prior knowledge as possible.

I often hear mention of The Blair Witch Project in the same conversations about this film.  And the comparisons are to be expected.  Both were filmed in a sort of ‘mockumentary’ style and, in my opinion, this strengthens the authenticity of both films.  But what carries these films (ironically) are the strong “acting performances”.  I don’t know that you can even call them “acting performances”.  I’m sure that there are large portions of all of these folks in the people they portray.  And while these actors aren’t going to be walking away with any Golden Globes in January, from a horror film standpoint, these are some class-A performances.  To say much more would possibly ruin the experience.  Just trust me when I say that, if you’re watching this the right way, you will find yourself feeling that you’re just watching a young couple and not actors in a film.
So what’s the real hook with this film?  Well, without spoiling any of the experience, for me it comes down to three things (besides the authenticity of the acting performances.)  First, this movie works more effectively for horror film aficionados because it abandons all modern horror film conventions.  There are no musical cues.  There are no professionally done cuts.  You are trusting the very vulnerable people holding the camera – and you feel very alone.  This film has a formula allits own and it is quite impressive.

The second aspect that makes this different from any other horror film are the setting and the effects.  We spend virtually the entire time in one location.  The film was only an hour and half and I can probably map out every room in the house.  The image it left in my mind was just that strong.  The illusion also holds up because, as much as I tried, I didn’t see any evidence that there was some off-screen crew.  The scenes are so dynamic and mobile that it’s hard to imagine where a crew might have been located.  And simply put, the effects are subtle and the effect is chilling.

Technical details like effects, camera work and sound engineering along with a good script and good acting are components that any solid big budget film could posses.  But, for me, there’s something intangible that ties this experience all together.  And for me it seems to be this fact: the film plays upon every fear that you’ve ever had about that seemingly random noise you might have heard.  Or the fact that you think you remember seeing something move in that shadow near your bed.  Somehow this film taps into a place deep in my mind when I resisted sleep as a child and would lie away and let my imagination running wild.  Maybe it’s just me.  But I think there’s an intrinsic value that permeates through the screen and starts gnawing at your fears.

I cannot stress enough — if you are the least bit antsy about being alone in the dark or fear of things dealing with the occult, stay away.  However, if you DO  decide to take this challenge on, ironically the theater isn’t the best place to experience it.  At least not in a full theater.  There are subtle sounds…. that can be most fully be appreciated if you are in limited company.  This film is going to really hit it’s stride when people see it at home with a high def television and a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system.  And the sound, as is the case with most suspense/horror films, is a huge part of the experience.

Stupidly, I watched this film alone and it’s alone that I’ll take myself to bed tonight… all the while singing “Rockin Robin” and “Happy People” as I do my best to forget some of these scenes until the morning.  Yes, if you let yourself get immersed in this one, it’s that serious.

31
Dec
08

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Review

benjamin button When I first saw the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I dismissed it immediately.  It seemed hokey: a story about a man who would be born with the qualities of an older human and then regress (or perhaps I should say progress) through his life aging backwards – that is to say, getting younger?  Complete novelty.  I had no intentions of even seeing the movie until it’s DVD release.  I happened to be out with a friend and we decided we had enough time to make one of the showings.  I’m glad that I was wrong about this film – completely wrong.  And I’m a better person for having seen it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stars Brad Pitt in the title role, but for me, this was a Brad Pitt unlike I had ever seen before.  I myself had been guilty of dismissing Pitt as a shallow actor who imagined himself to be an “actor’s actor”.  He took me by surprise in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and this film presented Pitt in a completely different way.  While I still feel that Heath Ledger captured my attention by transforming himself more than any other actor so far this year, Brad Pitt made a last minute run at taking that crown. 

It’s difficult to describe the plot without taking away from the enjoyment of actually seeing the film (and so I won’t do that.)  The best way to describe the film will also be one of the films biggest criticisms: “It’s kinda like Forrest Gump”.  I agree that it brings about some of the tender moments that audiences felt while watching Gump.  But for my money, Benjamin Button is much more substantive.  I’ve always taken flack for my opinion that Forrest Gump was an incredibly overrated film.  For me, the 1994 Gump release was memorable for the way that it carried the viewer across a journey spanning several decades, many of which coincide during key events in world history.  But to me Gump always seemed more like an ‘everyman’s epic film’.  The coincidental happenings set against icons that were typical of each era and decade made the film kinda campy.  Benjamin Button is truly epic, and not just because it spans several decades as well.  Where I felt that the character of “Forrest Gump” gets overshadowed by the events of the film, the events in Button act more like they should – a setting or a backdrop for the film and the focus is more more squarely on the characters.  Actually there are many more coincidences that this film has with Forrest Gump: the hometown girl who steals his heart, the charming loving qualities of the lead actor, the ‘fish out of water’ sequences.  Let’s just say that both films have their redeeming qualities.  Yet for me, Button has the soulful substance that will insure that I’ll be watching this film a few times.

OK, I guess I’m obligated to give a bit more about the plot than just to say it was kinda like another film.  As mentioned, a child is born in a state that makes his physical body incredibly old.  He has all of the qualities of an older man.  But strangely as time moves on, his body gets younger at the same rate that a normal human’s body will age.  And the rest of the film reveals the developments of his life: who he meets, who he loves, who affects his life and the lives of those that he affects.  This is a tender film and the best way to appreciate the progression of the story is by watching.

I didn’t realize that one of my favorite directors (David Fincher) directed this film.  Like Danny Boyle, Fincher is truly an incredible director in that his greatness isn’t limited to a particular genre of film.  This film can probably best be described as a family drama, yet it is every bit as engaging and incredible as Fincher’s other more action-driven dramas like Fight Club and Seven.  Another criticism that the film is sure to suffer is for it’s length.  At two hours and forty minutes, it is certainly longer than other films.  But this isn’t your average “opening, plot, conflict, resolve, close”.  This is an epic film and it needs to take it’s time – if for no other reason than to give the proper pacing to allowing the audience to appreciate the physical effects of Benjamin Button’s condition.  And speaking of the condition…

Continue reading ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Review’

12
Oct
08

The Visitor: Review

TheVisitor It’s rare these days for me to add a movie to my Netflix queue on the strength of the trailers that come at the beginning of other rentals.  It feels like a zero sum game to keep adding movies.  My OCD tells me to finish this queue and then add a bunch more movies later.  But something about the trailer for The Visitor made me suspend that policy.  I don’t even remember what it was, but somehow it affected me.  It seemed like it would do what I’m always looking for movies to do – give me a different perspective.  The disc showed up in my mailbox on Friday and now after having experienced it, I’m better for it.  This might be the most engaging and original film experience that I’ve seen in the past few years.

The Visitor stars Richard Jenkins as Walter Vale – an introverted professor who lives in Connecticut in solitude and in the shadow of his recently deceased wife.  The college calls him to make a trip to Manhattan to attend a conference and despite his resistance, he’s forced to go.  Upon arriving in the apartment that he and his wife called their own in New York, he quickly realizes that he’s not alone.  He awkwardly stumbles across a couple (Tarek and Zainab) who are not from New York (or even from the United States) who had been living there for months.  And the story progresses from there. 

As the story unfolded, I had this feeling that it would somehow play into every modern day stereotype about people not from this country.  Tarek (played by Haas Sleiman) is of Syrian descent and is Muslim.  I kept bracing for the unveiling that he was here as some part of terror cell.  Or that he had some link to it.  But refreshingly I don’t even feel like I’m spoiling in revealing that while the events of September 2001 affect the lives of everyone in this movie, none of the characters have even a remote attachment to the things that helped to cause it.

This movie has a magical quality.  Often you’ll see strangers who are forced into situations where they need to learn to like each other and it just feels fabricated.  But the friendship that Tarek and Walter have is completely genuine.  It’s infectious.  Richard Jenkins is phenomenal in his ability to portray a man who is visibly barren.  While he has a beautiful home and a job that allows him to teach only one class and conduct and independent study in preparation for the writing of a book, he’s completely devoid of life.  Tarek is the absolute opposite of this.  He has nothing, yet his smile and his happiness reach out through the screen.  I caught myself smiling several times during the interactions between Tarek and Walter.

In my favorite scene in the film, Tarek (who is a musician) leaves his drum (called a Djembe) in the apartment and somehow Richard comes home from his conference early and sees the drum.  It calls him.  He sees it and tries to resist.  But he can’t.  He takes the opportunity to try his hand at the drum and somehow Tarek finds him playing.  While the introverted Walter finds himself apologizing profusely, Tarek makes him feel at ease and the two partake in a drum session/lesson that is rhythmic, funny and hopeful.  It is this scene that acts as a microcosm for the entire film.  If only more people would share their culture with each other (and not just in one direction), how incredible would this world be?

This movie could have taken the easy way out and thrown in a heavy musical score to try to evoke emotion.  There isn’t any reason to do that here.  The music that is in the film already acts as an incredible soundtrack.

This may sound a bit extreme, but for me this is more than just a five-star film with incredible and original performances.  This is a film that represents the hope of a nation.  There are so many contradictions in American society today.  We seem to have forgotten the hope of Ellis Island in exchange for our fear of terrorists.  I believe that we need to keep the nation free, but it’s the diversity that makes us strong and expands our world view.  If we could all find friendship in folks who aren’t like those we are accustomed to dealing with, it would make the world a better place.  When you say the word ‘diversity’, it has come to evoke a sense of resistance.  “To force other cultures upon us in the hope that we’ll be more tolerant.”  But somehow we missed the real strength.  It is meant to be an opportunity for the exchange of customs and ideas.  It’s an opportunity to expose a part of ourselves – our music, our language, our ideals.  If you leave this movie with anything less than an uplifted heart, somehow you missed the point.

Don’t be like me – add this movie to your queue of movies to see without hesitation.  After having seen this film, I’m in the market for a Djembe.

12
Oct
08

Shopgirl: Review

danesmartin

At the suggestion of a very special friend, I decided to check out Shopgirl.  I’d seen the poster art previously, but never really considered checking this one out.  In short, Shopgirl might have been better received (at least by me) had the casting choices been more carefully considered.  I had some baggage to bring to the table, and that ultimately affected my enjoyment.  (But there are more than a few issues with this one.)

Shopgirl stars Claire Danes as Mirabelle – a twentysomething glove sales attendant at a Saks Fifth Avenue in California with a somewhat uncertain future.  Also starring as her love interests are Jason Schwartzman and Steve Martin.  Claire, as always, is quite dashing.  Aside from her physical attractiveness, she projects a personality that is profound; she seems like the type of girl who you could really get to know on an intellectual level.  I didn’t have a problem with ‘Mirabelle’ as much as I did her choices (but more on that in a bit). 

Where I did have a problem was with the other casting decisions.  Steve Martin has been trying his hand at this ‘serious actor’ thing for quite some time (L.A. Story, Grand Canyon) it just never worked for me.  When I see that face, I just want jokes.  Be they flatly delivered exaggerations or blunt SNL-style humor, that’s what I find myself looking for.  That isn’t to say that I’m so unforgiving that I won’t allow an actor to range outside of the roles I’m accustomed to seeing him in.  I think Jim Carrey has done a phenomenal job in his non-comedic roles (and I’d like to see him in many more serious films).  But Steve Martin as the straight man just doesn’t do it for me.  He didn’t in other films and he definitely doesn’t here either.

There are few actors that irk me the way that Jason Schwartzman does.  It’s a mean thing to say – I know – but he’s probably the most annoying actor this side of Tom Green.  I just don’t get him.  I’ve been trying to find it in my heart to forgive him since I Heart Huckabees, but this just adds kerosene to an already raging fire.  Clearly he’s got ‘acting chops’, but every role I’ve watched him in just frustrates me more and more.  Why?  Well, for starters, he’s needlessly complicated.  He’s every annoying kid in my childhood who redefines the notion that ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’.  There are short nerdy actors that could have worked in this role (which is KEY to the viewer’s appreciation of the film).  And regardless of my prejudices, Jason Schwartzman just doesn’t work in this role.  Period.  (Zack Braff – where are you when we need you!?!?!)

Continue reading ‘Shopgirl: Review’