Category Archives: movie reviews

“I can do nothing for you, son.”

I feel like the Coen Brothers making great movies is one of the few constants in my life. That, along with death (although I’m not throwing in the towel on that one), taxes, and vacation constipation. Sure, every now and then they throw a Burn After Reading at us. But they make up for it with a Big Lebowski, a Fargo, and a No Country for Old Men. Yes, what a time to be alive.

And before you ask, you can go ahead and add True Grit to the pantheon of Coen favorites. As the last film I’ll see at the movies in 2010, it more than made up for the bitter disappointments the year opened with, with films like Daybreakers and Legion kicking me in the balls and leaving me curled in the fetal position.

The film — the second adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel — is narrated by Mattie Ross, a 14-year old girl whose father was murdered at the hands of outlaw Tom Chaney. After some questioning around town, Mattie seeks out Rooster Cogburn, whom she believes possesses the titular true grit to track Chaney down and bring him to justice. Accompanying them on their trek is Texas Ranger La Boeuf, who’s after Chaney for separate crimes. Together, the three learns lessons about each other, life and each other.

Those of you going into the theater expecting another No Country may be a little disappointed, as True Grit is a much more straight up western than that previous film, but at the same time it’s no less good. It’s superbly acted all around, which should come as no surprise. Tron notwithstanding, since when does Jeff Bridges not bring a healthy dose of badassery to the roles he plays? Matt Damon was a big surprise here. His portrayal of La Boeuf seemed to be one part Jason Bourne, two parts Mark Whitacre and Linus Caldwell. What was so great about it was that it was funny without trying to be funny. And oh, how wrong things could have gone there. I mean, how tired are we of the snarky sidekick who’s only snarky to be snarky?

But the real showstopper here is Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross. She’s come out of obscurity and proven in just two short hours how capable she is of rolling with the big dogs. Now, if you’re asking who Hailee Steinfeld is, I don’t imagine you’re much different from the rest of the world, and that’s including her parents. But fear not, because you’re probably going to be hearing her name much more in the future.

True Grit is definitely one of those the-journey-is-more-important-than-the-destination films. The relationship between Mattie, Cogburn and La Beouf and how it develops is what keeps you glued to the screen. The actual resolution to their journey, the reason they’ve all banded together in the first place is over so quickly you daren’t (DAREN’T!) blink for fear of missing it. And once it’s all over, the film peters out a bit, with its coda feeling more like a, “Well, we sure had some fun, eh?” than anything that really adds to the story. I’ve never read the book, so I couldn’t say how faithful this is to that, although I’ve heard that the film as a whole toes the line pretty close.

I really liked this one. The chemistry (as we say in the hard sciences) between the leads is more than enough to make up for whatever small shortcomings the story has. And at two hours, the whole thing goes by pretty fast. As westerns go, this is probably one of the purest we’re going to see in a while, which is a credit to the Coen Brothers and the tone they’re able to set in their films. Tickets cost about, what? $30 apiece now? Go out and spend it. It’s completely worth it.


“Watch the way she moves.”

For all of its weirdness, I really liked the The Fountain. And even though I’m still trying to wash off the ick after seeing Requiem for a Dream, I recognize it as a piece of art. Both of those films are really over the top in their own ways, so when I settled in to Black Swan, I have to say I was expecting something similar.

For those of you not in the know, the film follows Natalie Portman, a dancer in a NYC ballet company, who’s trying to get the lead role in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. Her director, played by Vincent Cassel (also known as the Night Fox), thinks she’d make a great White Swan, but is worried she lacks the raw sensuality and abandon to play the titular Black Swan. Portman, much like an actual ballet dancer, is slowly going bats**t crazy preparing for the role, with her transformation having surprising and unexpected results.

Darren Aronofsky is a man who knows his business, so I won’t say that after several years he’s learned to reign in and refine his style. Still, I found Black Swan to be somewhat understated, but only in comparison to his other films. Even when Portman is in the depths of her insanity, we’re only given a taste of her madness before the film pulls away and snaps us back to reality.

Still, Aronofsky returns with many of his usual tricks. Throughout the film, we’re given several closeup shots of dancers cracking knuckles, stretching, warming up. These are all accompanied by über loud and bassy sound effects, and really show how the body can be used as a tool, a piece of hardware.

While there are a lot of faces on the screen, the story is told principally through Portman, Kunis and Cassel. And even then, Kunis and Cassel only serve in auxiliary roles, one pushing while the other pulls Portman into a transcendent level of commitment to the role she’s trying for. After her time on ‘That 70s Show’ and ‘Family Guy,’ Kunis will probably be forever written off. I wouldn’t go that far. She can act, but for the most part this film doesn’t really give her anywhere to go. She’s a party girl, trying to get Portman to loosen up and live a little, which she does in one scene that’s guaranteed to have indignant girlfriends/wives walking out of theaters all over the country. And for those of you wondering about that, Aronofsky uses a few clever camera angles so that there’s never any actual nudity in the film. The film could probably have done without it, but it serves its purpose and isn’t dwelled upon. So…*cough.* What was I saying?

The entire film is psychologically tense, and that’s due entirely to Portman’s performance. You feel like you’re stretched taught throughout the entire thing, and never really let go of until the credits start to roll. Her character is so nervous and timid, and never quite figures out how to react to what’s happening to her.

Black Swan wasn’t the blowout I was expecting walking into the theater, but it may be the most solid film I’ve seen all year, and probably Natalie Portman’s best. She’s definitely done her part to make up for those horrible Star Wars prequels. So that’s good. I have a feeling this is the one that’ll go up against The Social Network at the Oscars next year, but will be handily beaten when James Cameron brings Avatar back, because there’s no stopping that bastard.

“Your best friend is suing you for 600 million dollars.”

Ahh, award season. Let the onrush of good movies wash over you like the baptismal waters of the Pacific over Don Draper. Satisfyin’.

For a while, The Social Network was just called the Facebook movie, and if you’re like me you were probably wondering how they were going to turn trolling through my your ex-girlfriend’s pictures into a 2-hour film. Then I heard that Aaron Sorkin had been brought on to write the script and that David Fincher would be directing, and all was right with the world.

The film is adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires, and tells the story of the company’s humble beginnings, the humble egos involved, and the million-bazillion humble lawsuits that ensued after whose brainchild Facebook actually was came into dispute. In a classic Sorkin move (classic!), the movie is set during a deposition, with Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin and Cameron and Tyler Winklevos being questioned about those first days in 2003 when they were idealistic Harvard kids, setting out to change the world with little more than a pocket full of dreams.

Fincher and Sorkin both come from very different backgrounds. Fincher directed the I-Need-To-Take-A-Shower Seven, and Sorkin created the I’m-Smarter-After-Watching-This ‘West Wing.’ So what you end up with is a very dark, brooding film, filled with characters who never want for crisp, witty dialogue. Round things out with a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that can best be described as “moody,” and what you’re left with is a unique piece of filmmaking that’ll be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nod at next year’s Oscars.

Because some parts of the film’s story have obviously been embellished for dramatic effect, you have to ask yourself which character traits have also been a little over-exaggerated. The film portrays Zuckerberg as some sort of borderline-autistic obsessive compulsive. I’ve never seen any interviews with the guy, so I couldn’t really attest to how accurate a portrayal it is. My wife saw him at a SXSW panel a few years back and says it seemed about right. In any case, the character is well-acted, and a real breakaway for Jesse Eisenberg, who, after seeing Adventureland and Zombieland, I was worried would spend the rest of his life competing with Michael Cera for a role in Just Me Being Me: The Michael Cera Story. I was glad to see him show a little more range, although you could make the argument that it’s just more range within the same character.

Justin Timberlake does his usual good job, although to me he didn’t figure into the story as largely as I thought he would. Andrew Garfield is a name that you’ll probably be hearing thrown around a lot more now. Especially because he’s just been cast as Peter Parker in the new Spiderman reboot. This should at least reassure those who weren’t sure he’d bring much to the role, although they may still be asking questions about a Spanish Spiderman. The film also stars Armie Hammer as the twins Winklevoss, who may actually be one of the film’s best kept secrets. He does a great job, especially considering that he’s playing two roles. Also keep an eye out for Rooney Mara, who plays Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in the opening scene. She’s just been cast as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s upcoming adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Her role in here definitely answers the question, “Who the hell is Rooney Mara?”

Now that I’m putting all this down on paper, I find that I’ve quickly run out of things to say about the film. I guess it doesn’t take 2,000 words to list the reasons The Social Network is better than movies like Daybreakers and The Book of Eli. The film is poignant, and really portrays Zuckerberg as a tragic if sympathetic character. You’ll definitely want to friend The Social Network and post on its Wall. Also Poke it and send it a Mafia Wars request.

“If we get jammed up, we’re holding court on the street.”

It does my soul good to see how far Ben Affleck has climbed out of the gutter post-Gigli. It’s that same feeling I had when I realized what a funny guy Justin Timberlake is. You see them on TV, nod and say, “That’ll do, pig.” Not really sure where I was going with any of that, but when I saw that Affleck was pulling double duty as director and star of The Town, it made me even more excited to see it.

Charlestown, a working-class area of Boston, has produced more bank robbers than anywhere else in the country. That’s what the film tells us right before we’re thrown into the middle of the action, with Affleck and his crew who are, strangely enough, robbing a bank. Things seem to be going fine until bank manager Rebecca Hall triggers an alarm and Jeremy Renner, who plays the crew’s loose cannon, takes her as a bit of human collateral while they make their escape. After the dust has more or less settled, Renner’s worried there’s a chance she could make them to the cops and Affleck agrees to follow her to make sure she doesn’t cause any problems. Everything’s going just fine, until whoops! They fall for each other? Now we’ve got ourselves a movie!

While their relationship deals with some of the class differences between Hall’s haves and Affleck’s have-nots, there’s also a bit of the same going on between Affleck and Renner. Renner’s already served nine years in prison for a murder he committed when he was a teenager, and as he later tells Affleck while planning their last job, he can’t go back. It’s this or nothing. And the fact that he’s accepted his lot in life only expedites that process. Renner’s character doesn’t posses the skill or the intelligence to make any other life for himself were the situation any different. Affleck, on the other hand, is better than that, and on some base level recognizes it.

And I guess I have to wonder whether or not playing it that way was intentional on his part. At one point in the film, Affleck tells Renner, “I’m putting this whole town in my rear view.” The implication being that he had tried the same thing several times before, but just when he thought he was out, THEY PULLED HIM BACK IN! I never really bought that. It seemed like Affleck operated on the assumption that he was here now, doing what circumstances had forced him to do, but it was only a temporary gig and eventually he’d leave. That was and had always been the plan. It’ll be interesting to see how many people instead interpret it as Affleck not being able to throw himself into his part.

On the other side of the tracks are FBI agents Jon Hamm (who I was really happy didn’t try to affect a Boston accent) and his partner, Titus Welliver. There isn’t an incredible amount of depth to either of these two characters. Both are the deeply committed and singularly focused lawmen you normally see in movies like these. However, the parts are very well acted. There’s a great scene in which Hamm and Affleck are finally pitted against each other in an interrogation room.

A good story, good performances and some great action set pieces, The Town is a real meat and potatoes story. There’s a lot of subtext there, mostly between Affleck, Hall and Renner, but I don’t think you really need to get all of it to enjoy it. I’ve heard the film being compared to Michael Mann’s Heat, but don’t really think the comparison holds up. I think any heist movie with people in street shooting automatic weapons is doomed to draw the same comparison. Sure, this movie doesn’t have Val Kilmer with a ponytail, but not all movies can.

“I don’t think God’s very interested in me, Father.”

To paraphrase Shane Black, you have to wade through a lot of vomit to find that one piece of ham. And after wading through the vomit that was the 2010 Summer movie season, a very prime piece of ham The American turned out to be.

The movie was adapted from Martin Booth’s novel, A Very Private Gentleman, and while Booth’s protagonist is portrayed as cautious yet very confident, Clooney plays him as a man who’s come to the realization that he’s living on borrowed time. After narrowly escaping an attempt on his life in Sweden (and after seeing this and reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I’m convinced all people do up there is murder and rape each other), Clooney settles in a small Italian village, where he’s agreed to take on one last job before leaving the game for good.

Clooney’s learned his lessons the hard way, so he spends much of the movie looking over his shoulder. Not only for the Swedes, but his employer, who Clooney knows he can’t fully trust. In the middle of this, he’s befriended by a local priest and becomes romantically involved with the prostitute he visits. After Sweden, “don’t let people get close” has become Clooney’s mantra, but he’s a man who recognizes the fact that he’s set to self-destruct, and for him, this is a way of breaking out of that cycle. Even if he does so somewhat reluctantly, as in the case of Father Benedetto.

As with any adaptation, I knew the movie would take certain liberties with the book, but overall I thought it remained pretty faithful, and the changes the filmmakers did make made sense for a movie that doesn’t even take up a full two hours. My biggest problem with the movie is that it’s so minimalist that it doesn’t really seem to say anything. Clooney’s last job is to fashion a gun for a hit, the politics of which are never talked about or even alluded to. Father Benedetto recognizes that Clooney is burdened by a horrible secret, but aside from a few questions, the morality (or lack thereof) of those secrets is never really explored.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I think most people will understand that a movie like this can only end one of two ways, and considering the way it all played out, I can’t really figure out if one would have been less cliched than the other. In the end it didn’t seem to matter. As soon as I left the theater I remembered I was hungry and went to Taco Bell. And while a Crunchwrap Supreme is a great, great thing, I would have preferred to instead chew on the movie a bit longer.

I enjoyed The American. Like I said, it was very welcome after these past few months. I thought it was well made and well acted. I enjoyed that the look of the film was so spartan that it made everything it did show resonate. I just wish there was a little something more to grab onto and that it wasn’t as forgettable as I’m afraid it’s going to be.

“You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

When I first heard about Inception, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It wasn’t a video game or a comic book. And it didn’t have anything to do with Inception!, the popular 80s TV series starring Lee Majors. Then I discovered something curious: Inception was a completely original concept which hadn’t been adapted from any previously existing property. It had been so long since had seen anything like that, I’d almost forgotten what it was like. Needless to say, Christopher Nolan is a witch and should be buried under a load of heavy stones.

Seriously though, and all of the fanboyish love over movies like The Dark Knight (please be seated) aside, Christopher Nolan seems to be one of a dying in breed in Hollywood who have both the desire and the clout to bring a film like Inception — a big movie about big ideas — to theaters. And Inception definitely has some pretty hefty ideas. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a thief who can enter people’s dreams and extract their secrets. His skills have cost him his wife and his children, but now he’s being offered a chance to get it all back. One last job, where instead of stealing ideas, Cobb and his team will be planting one.

Even though the film has a lot going for it, there comes a point fairly early on when you wonder if Inception might collapse under its own weight. Like I said, this movie’s got plenty of big ideas. So many, in fact, that for the first half you begin to wonder if Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page aren’t really acting in the film, but taking turns reciting its instruction manual. That’s a little too harsh, but explaining the movie to the audience does make for some clunky exposition in the first hour or so.

Once the groundwork is laid down, the film picks up considerably. Of course, this is in no small part to the cast Nolan’s brought together. There are some actors out there who, regardless of the film, deliver consistently good work. Leonardo DiCaprio’s definitely one of them. Along with him, you’ve got Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who delivered a good, albeit somewhat boxy performance. Ellen Page, who amazed me by making me forget for two and a half hours that she was in Juno. And Tom Hardy, who has to be one of the most under-appreciated actors around.

But the cast and what a cool concept Inception is aside, what I appreciated most about the film was its sense of restraint. I’m willing to concede that they went a little over the top, but I’m one of those people who will argue in favor of the second and third Matrix films. With Inception, it would have been easy for Nolan to follow very closely in the Wachowski’s footsteps. Crazy CGI. Never-before-seen stunts. And we do get some of that, but Nolan is one of those filmmakers who knows when to dial things back. As Cobb as his team move deeper and deeper into the dreams of their mark, trying to plant their idea, nobody gains superhuman powers. And the dreams we see are all still grounded in reality. Well, except for that last one and if you’ve seen the film you’ll understand. But still, I never felt that Nolan was using the film’s subject matter as an excuse to — as the French say — masturbate all over the place, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

But even when Nolan does turn things up to 11, he does so incredibly well. The physics of the dreams and unique architecture of the dream worlds may be the best example of this. Some may find it simplistic, but I think it was probably the best way to convey this sort of concept to a mass audience. Think about some of the dreams you’ve had, and how batsh*t insane they are. Then think about how the movie would have been had Leo and co. had to navigate their way through freaky childhood clowns and that one time I peed myself in the middle of the Wal-Mart in front of my ex-wife. I think you get the point.

People are already talking about what Inception’s Oscar chances are, but unless we’re talking about set design or special effects, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. I think films like Inception are doomed to suffer silently while lesser films get all the big accolades. Maybe that’s as it should be. Inception is definitely a blockbuster, but in a way I’ll always think of it as the little film that could. That is, the film that showed us it’s still possible to meld mind-blowing special effects with an actual story.

“There will be blood in the water.”

When did we begin demanding so much from our comic book movies? I think one of the major complaints when books are adapted for the big screen is that they aren’t always faithful to the source material. But because so many comic books — especially the ones they’ve been turning into movies lately — are so unrealistic, when they are faithfully adapted we see them as over the top. Even The Dark Knight, which is probably the best comic book ever made, couldn’t help from doing this when Batman started using that weird dolphin-vision sonar weapon toward the end.

The Dark Knight is actually a good movie to compare Iron Man to. Sonar vision aside, The Dark Knight is probably the grittiest, most realistic (think real-world) portrayal of a superhero we’ve seen on film. Iron Man doesn’t live up to that level of realism, although it’s still a very, very good movie. So which one do we want? Would we rather have realistic, believable characters who could fit into the real world, or would we rather they were faithful to the comic books, over the top though they may be? Are the two mutually exclusive? Do we even need to choose between the two? Given the success of both The Dark Knight and Iron Man, probably not.

Still, after seeing clips of Tony Stark and his crazy briefcase armor and Minority Report computers, I tried to temper my expectations for the second film. Because the first one was so good, I didn’t think there was really any way Iron Man 2 could match it. And you know what? It didn’t. But it came really, really close. I don’t know if it was because the movie is really trying to advance the Avengers part of the Iron Man story, but such a large cast and so many big characters could really have screwed this thing up (Don’t believe me? Go watch Spiderman 3).

But the cast really worked in the movie’s favor, and looking back on it, almost gave us two movies at once. Sure, there are plenty of bad guys for Iron Man to fight, but at the same time Tony Stark is forced to confront the fact that his egotism may preclude him from joining Nick Fury’s team, although most would argue that the point is ultimately lost on him. But you don’t really realize how much movie you’ve just watched until the whole thing is over.

And again, Robert Downey Jr. steals the show. Seriously, can you imagine anyone else in this role? I have a feeling that if Tony Stark were a real person, we’d all be amazed by his iron men, but we’d all call him an asshole behind his back. Mostly because he was rich and slept with all of our girlfriends. But we’d still hang out with him, you know…if he ever wanted to hang. Anyway, the only real weak spot in the movie was Scarlett Johansson, and that’s only when compared to everyone else. I don’t know, there was just something a little boxy about her that I don’t usually see in her other films. But wait. What was that? She’s Scarlett Johansson? You make an interesting point. All is forgiven.

Many of you probably know that Nick Fury makes another appearance in the film. Actually, Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of the S.H.I.E.L.D. director is a perfect example of how a realistic depiction of the man can help overcome the character’s sometimes-unbelievable superhero trappings. When he popped up at the end of the first movie and said, “I’d like to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” I saw visions of Mace Windu all over again (the horror). With more than ten seconds to work with, he was able to flesh the character out a little bit. I was surprised at how much he sounded like Jules Winfield, and I can guarantee that if Iron Man had been given an R rating, we would have heard an f-bomb or ten.

There are a few things keeping Iron Man 2 from being as good as the first film. For one, I think the filmmakers were a little too eager to introduce War Machine into the mix, and the entire thing ends up feelings a bit shoehorned. Although I will say that I much prefer Don Cheadle to Terrance Howard. Also, for a movie in which Mickey Rourke is clearly the bad guy, I thought he really got short shrift there in the end. In all fairness, there was a lot there to make up for it, including Sam Rockwell — who in a bold move for an actor has foregone making bad films — and Scarlett Johannson in a catsuit.

While almost everyone will probably come out of this movie thinking that the first one was better, I think most of those people are going to be very happy with what director Jon Favreau has given us, and with Thor and Captain America on the horizon, we’ll only look forward to Iron Man 3 (not to mention The Avengers) with more and more anticipation. Oh, yeah. Whatever you do, stay after the credits.