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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: Funny, Yet Not Smith-y.

Posted by goldwriting on November 2, 2008

I’m sure you know my companion here. He’s in every comedy this year.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

It’s been a long time coming. Finally someone tackled the incredibly hard genre of porn parody in the mainstream film world. This area has been begging to be cracked open and poked fun at for decades, almost since the inception of porn itself. The missing link in this universal quest was waiting for the right director to come along, one with enough guts to get down and dirty with the humor, one with enough skill to handle the depravity of the comedy without losing the audience, and finally one with enough of a following that it wouldn’t matter if he videotaped a poster of dogs playing poker for two hours. That director has come and he bears the name Kevin Smith…or does he?

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the childishly charming story of two best friends who find their wallets bone dry and no prospects for paying their long overdue bills until Zack has the brilliant epiphany of shooting a porno starring themselves. Leading this adult-themed romp, Zack and Miri pull together a cast and crew of porn outcasts and misfits, along with some familiar faces to the comedy world, and form a family they didn’t know they were missing until it was already there. Along the way Zack and Miri also deal with the most common question between two best friends of opposite genders: Will sex change us?

Before even breaching the doorway of the theater any audience member who knows the name Kevin Smith is prepped and ready for dirty jokes, loads of sarcasm and possibly male nudity, but after the past year of R-rated comedies and the explosion of Judd Apatow, none of those previous shock factors hold much weight anymore. What Kevin Smith had to rely on in this film was his own personal style of witty dialogue and banter, exemplified early in Smith’s career with Clerks, where Dante and Randal debate over the righteousness of killing unionized Storm Troopers in The Empire Strike Back. That conversation would never appear in any other director’s works, let alone in their heads. Unfortunately Zack and Miri didn’t reach quite the same level of kitsch or intellectual playfulness we are used to from Smith. There are certainly moments of it sprinkled throughout, but the overall feel was a let down from his normal style. This could be the result of what every director goes through while they try to expand their market and skills (and this will only be further detailed in 2010 with the release of Smith’s first horror film, Red State), but the main difference now is when Smith first erupted onto the scene he was the lone torch bearer for the R-rated comedy world and now Apatow has taken the flame and run with it. With Zack and Miri lacking the spark and wit usually associated with Smith, it is too easy to mistake this for any new director being towed along in the Apatow wake. Now don’t take this to mean I didn’t like the film, I most certainly enjoyed myself, but it just left me wanting more of the Kevin Smith-ness I yearned for (which was easily solved by a quick jaunt home and a return viewing of Dogma…God bless that movie!).

Adding slightly to the Apatow undertone is the casting of Seth Rogen as Zack, who has been pleasurably riding along with Apatow and his crew since the days of Freaks and Geeks. This is not a slight on Rogen at all, because he has certainly done his homework and made all the efforts to be where he is today, but a large number of his big projects, especially in recent film history, have been under the banner of Apatow films, if not directed by the man himself. So audiences have certainly come to know Rogen and the style he brings to any raunchy or over-the-line comedy, but I didn’t quite feel he brought anything new to the table this time. He proved once again he can believably deliver heartfelt dialogue and make the audience care, but that was a doubt he previously shattered in Knocked Up. I laughed at the moments he wanted me to, yet I still felt he won’t be overly remembered for this performance. Skipping up alongside Rogen is Elizabeth Banks as Miri. Banks is also not a stranger to fans of Apatow with her side character turn in The 40-Year Old Virgin, but she has been equally busy in recent history on a number of other projects as well. In this movie she tries to show us the internal struggle of a woman fighting to keep her most important friendship strictly platonic, while also filming a porn flick to save her from being evicted. What woman hasn’t gone through that? She has her share of moments, but again doesn’t leave anything completely memorable for the exiting audience. On other parts of the casting front we see some familiar names from Smith’s View Askew-niverse; Jason Mewes, or more commonly known as Jay of Jay and Silent Bob, and Jeff Anderson, who has been delighting audiences as Randal since Clerks. Mewes plays Lester, the low budget porn actor with incredibly useful talents and a well versed knowledge of any and all sexual techniques. Half of his dialogue, funny as it may be, comes off like a recital from urbandictionary.com. Anderson joins in as Deacon, the cameraman-cum-editor who finds himself in the most precarious of positions. Also well known to comedy fans is Craig Robinson, who in this film plays Delaney, Zack’s co-worker and newly crowned porn producer, but to most of the television audience out there he is better known as Darryl, the big, bad plant worker from The Office. Craig is on a hot streak right now many actors spend their lives dreaming for and the best part of it is, we the audience get the benefit of watching his comedic genius even more. Popping in to give the movie some realistic porn flavor are Katie Morgan and Traci Lords, the former a current adult film star and the latter one of the few to retire and make a mainstream transition.

There is one more person worth mentioning and I made sure to save the best for last, even giving him his own paragraph. Justin Long, a terribly underrated actor, turns in the most hilarious performance as Brandon, the gay porn star who first inspires the wild idea in Zack’s head. He only has two scenes in the film, one of which you must stay halfway through the credits to watch, but trust me, it is totally worth the wait. I shudder to think how many takes were blown when other actors lost their composure watching Long in this role. He grabs a hold of this utterly ridiculous persona and never lets go, practically daring the other actors to break character. His performance alone raised the score of this movie a full point in my book.

Recommendation: True die hards of the Kevin Smith clan might not be blown away by this, but it could possibly reach a broader audience previously turned off by Kevin’s normal banter and intentionally clever writing. It doesn’t end up on the bottom of my Smith totem pole (you’re still safe down there, Jersey Girl), but it does make me readjust what I expect to see from him in the future. Same skill, less nerdy wit.

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The Visitor: Finding the Beat of Your Heart

Posted by goldwriting on November 1, 2008

Can you teach me something by Journey?

Rating: 9 out of 10

Taking the ordinary and introducing it to the out-of-the-ordinary. That’s what Thomas McCarthy said about his films and their underlying stories. Actually, he probably put it a little more eloquently, but you catch the drift. This is indeed the core of nearly all filmmaking and good storytelling. It brings out the eternal question; What happens when the normal world is shifted, knocked askew by any number of forces and how will the people of that world react? Will they run? Will they freeze? Most importantly of all, what would we do in their shoes? Now before you apply these new questions to such deep and powerful films like Beerfest and Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, let’s start out with something a bit clearer.

The Visitor tells the story of Walter Vale, an economy professor listlessly wandering through his days pretending to be busy so he can negate any chance for human contact since the loss of his wife. He reluctantly makes a trip to New York for a conference and finds a young couple illegally renting his apartment in the city. Being a decent person, he allows them to stay while they look for a new place, but in return he gets much more than new roommates, he finds the doorway to a life which has been passing him by.

Thomas McCarthy creates a wonderfully simple and beautifully timeless world for us so we can bear witness to one of the great abilities in human nature, love. You can break almost any story down into a love story, but The Visitor is one dealing with numerous types of love in one tale. There is the love of music, shown when Tarek, the young man living in William’s apartment, teaches William about the African drum. Through this new musical outlet, William grows not only as a drummer, but as a person as well, allowing himself to open up to the world walking by him and becoming a participant instead of an invisible observer. There is the love of a young couple, shown by Tarek and Zainab, his girlfriend. They are both living in the country under constant fear of deportation, ignorant retaliation and learning to do what they can to get by, but their love for each other keeps them together and puts smiles onto their faces in even the darkest of moments. There is also the love of a mother for her son, shown through the brave journey of Mouna, Tarek’s mother who travels to New York after five days of not being able to reach her son on his cell phone. Sure, that could sound a touch paranoid, but it was the reality this family was living in which made her so concerned. Lastly, just to top off the love-fest, this also tells the story of love coming again to those who have closed themselves off to the idea. No matter what the circumstances, no matter how long it has been, love can always breach those defenses and wake up the heart once more. All these different versions of love are delicately woven together and paired up with a powerful political sentiment around our broken immigration policies and treatment of illegals. Coming off heavy handed is dangerous when dealing with these themes, so subtlety is the name of the game here and McCarthy handles it with the same skill and honesty he showed us before in The Station Agent. As a writer/director his record is incredibly strong, so I recommend keeping an eye out for anything bearing his name.

As with most small stories like this one, much of the weight and success falls on the shoulders of the actors and their ability to deliver realistic, believable and truthful performances. Casting becomes a type of “make-or-break” decision for the project and Thomas McCarthy came well prepared to the table. He had Richard Jenkins in mind for Walter Vale from nearly the beginning and stuck with him even after Richard told him that he would love to play the character, but the movie would most likely never get made with him as the lead. Richard wasn’t saying this out of any type of martyr complex, but he has been a character actor for a great many years without a starring role and he knew his name would not carry much weight on the playbill, yet even with that fact staring him in the face, Thomas stuck to his guns and fought for Richard. After winning all necessary battles, Richard walked into the role with such amazing depth and sensitivity garnering him incredible buzz and murmurs of Academy nominations. If he doesn’t reach the heights of the golden statue this time, he shouldn’t be too heartbroken because I have no doubt a number of the independent awards and smaller organizations are going to give notice and heap praise. There were such small and nuanced details to every moment he portrayed, it was impossible not to feel for him during this journey. From platonic caring to romantic longing, Richard proved once and for all he is a lead actor and one to be learned from. Also involved from near the inception of the story was Hiam Abbass, who played Tarek’s mother, Mouna Khalil. She really fit perfectly with the style and grace of Jenkin’s performance, showing a quiet, reserved, yet insurmountable strength which propelled her character to do absolutely anything to be there for her son. As for the young couple, Haaz Sleiman played Tarek and Danai Jekesai Gurira played Zainab. Both were quite good and held up the incredible level of commitment and quality already being displayed in the film. Haaz boldly followed his ark of being hopeful and optimistic about life in America to barely contained rage over his mistreatment from ignorance and fear. Danai displayed the other side of being a foreigner in this country, the side where they try as best as they can to keep to themselves and not interfere or be noticed for fear of being deported. Her struggle displays one of the true tragedies of the story, where the yellow brick road leading many immigrants to our shores and streets ends on cracked pavement and broken promises.

Recommendation: The Visitor is an amazing film which really brings out the depth of feeling we yearn for from independent cinema. It has had a long and slow burn on the film circuit and at this time can already be found on DVD, so do yourself a favor and buy, rent or borrow this movie as soon as you get the chance. If you’re lucky, the story of Walter Vale might even inspire you to continue on your own journey, wherever it may lead.

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Changeling: Truth and Passion without Power.

Posted by goldwriting on October 26, 2008

“Oh my, ummm…this is awkward. Can I return this one for something a little more, i don’t know, related to me?”

Ranking: 7.5/10

Some people refer to it as the “Oscar curse”, others mention it as “setting the bar too high”, but they all refer to the same phenomenon, once great success is achieved everything from that point forward is compared against it. Few directors still working today know this as well as Clint Eastwood. After winning a number of awards previously, he finally snagged the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture for his 1992 return to the Western, Unforgiven. Twelve years later he reached that height once more in both categories for Million Dollar Baby. With that amount of popularity and acclaim in your wake, critics and audiences begin to develop a particular impression of where your movies will take them. Each time Clint returns to the screen, it is another contest against himself to try and outdo his previous visions. Did it happen this time? Were new peaks reached in power and passion? Let’s find out.

Changeling is based on a true story about a young woman named Christine Collins whose young son was kidnapped in late 1920’s Los Angeles. This took place during a time of great scrutiny and negative press for the police department in LA, so her tragic situation was given an overwhelming amount of news coverage and spotlight. Desperate to garner anything in the form of positive press, the LAPD snatched up any attempt to find her boy, but in that desperate vein they returned to her a young boy who was not her son. Whether it was an honest mistake or collusion on the part of the police force, it didn’t matter, there was no way for them to back out. What followed was a closely guarded cabal of high ranking officers and elected officials who did everything in their power to silence the willful and impassioned young mother still crying for her real son to be brought home.

The story is a powerful one and at times you have remind yourself that it actually took place. The sheer audacity and corruption depicted nearly ruins any suspension of disbelief, but it’s because we live in a different time, a different society. Back then, women still had very few rights and a great deal could still be swept away with a back handed comment about them being “too emotional”. In the past we were still bearing witness to the classic adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, which we can still see today if we look closely enough. Clint did a fantastic job translating this desperate tale to the screen, bringing every minuscule detail of the 1920’s – 1930’s Los Angeles back to life. He also continues to handle brutal levels of violence in a sensitive and classic manner, moving the camera away or playing with shadows just enough to let the audience fill in the darkness.

Yet, what a director is truly there for is to direct the actors and bring forth the most honest and pure performances possible. This is where Clint Eastwood is a living, breathing masterpiece. Angelina Jolie brings forth the tremors and troubles of the young mother, Christine Collins. There is no doubt playing this role was incredibly intense for her since she most likely drew from her own much publicized experiences as a mother. She once again glides from reserved, to frantic, to forlorn and lastly to resolute with the grace of an actress much older than her years. The only problem for her was she spent a good deal of the movie emotionally troubled, so there wasn’t very far she could still go by the time of the third act climax. In the end there was a sense of caring for her, but I felt the lack of a distinct moment of undenied connection from the audience. John Malkovich lays the heavy hand of responsibility on the LAPD in his performance as Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a local pastor who made it his main goal in life to bring to light all the criminal and despicable acts the police had committed under the guise of justice. John achieves the powerful and sometimes frightening level of surety and devout belief in his own actions, which is usually the signature of highly influential religious officials. Jeffery Donovan gets the part people either love or hate to play, the character left holding all the blame. As Capt. J.J. Jones, Jeffery scrambles erratically to cover up Christine Collins in any way possible, including having her committed to an insane asylum until she agrees to sign a document absolving the LAPD of any wrongdoing in her case. He definitely reaches deep into this character to bring out the desperation which accompanies his actions, but the one failure here is we can never tell how much he knew from the beginning, exactly how complicit was he, which affects how much the audience can blame him. Yet, with all these big names and accomplished actors in the film, scene after scene is stolen by Jason Butler Harner in the role of Gordon Northcott, a frighteningly imbalanced monster with a penchant for young boys. No matter who he was on screen with, Jason drew all eyes to him and punched his way off the screen into the guts and underbelly of the audience. When nominations are announced next year, I’m not going to be surprised to see some of these names in lights, but Jason is certainly one of the most deserving.

While there are times we complain something on screen is unbelievable or that it could never happen in real life, this film suffers slightly from the opposite effect, what we witness is based on real life, during a particular moment in time. The level of mental, physical and emotional abuse laid upon this woman is not only baffling, but shocking to the idea that it ever took place. The film follows a common structure of your underdog story, one against the many, but in the end I’m not sure whether there was enough retribution to balance out the agony she had been put through. Without that equality between protagonist and antagonist, the film can sometimes feel unfulfilled.

Bottom Line: Fans of Clint Eastwood will like the film, but possibly not love it. It still fails to reach the level of his previous works, but certain performances, specifically from Jason Butler Harner, are truly worth experiencing.

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RocknRolla: Ritchie Gives Tarantino the Ole’ One-Two

Posted by goldwriting on October 9, 2008

Buy at Art.com

[ Click above to buy the poster]

2 out of 3 people in the poster are looking off to the left. The girl would be looking there too, but she’s playing coy.

Are you looking to step into a bit of the ole’ underground? Yearning for a taste of the underbelly of London? Maybe you’re just missing the sounds of those thick British accents as the words stumble into your ears and confuse more than inform you. Whatever the case may be, there is only one man who truly provides the cure for those ills…Guy Ritchie.

The man behind Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch is back once again with another chapter is his series of old school mob movies. RocknRolla follows along a certain tradition for Ritchie, fast talking and fast reacting characters keep the audience tense, because they have absolutely no clue what will happen next. Keep the characters unpredictable and keep the audience involved, that’s the key. Now, if you noticed the title of this review, you might be wondering where the connection to Quentin Tarantino comes in (and that is a most perceptive and valid question. Well done, reader). After the movie ended I turned to my friend and said, “One sentence review: The British Pulp Fiction.” He sat back, processed the comparison and smiled. “Yep, you’re totally right.” I’ll show you what I mean while giving a brief overview of the story.

RocknRolla follows a small gang of low level criminals known as The Wild Bunch, who get hired by a sexy accountant to rip off some big money from an even bigger mobster. What she didn’t know is our little hooligans were already in debt to the local crime lord, who was doing business with the “bigger mobster”. So money is stolen, circulated, recycled and everyone ends up chasing each others tails. Also, there is a painting that gets stolen and becomes the MacGuffin of the film, which is a cinematic term for an object that is central to the plot, but no one ever really sees it. People philosophize, people die and people are nearly sodomized.

If the specifics of the comparison aren’t gelling for you yet, here’s a breakdown:

MacGuffins: Pulp Fiction has the briefcase which we never see inside. RocknRolla has the painting which we never see the front of.

Crooks in way over their head: Gerard Butler and Idris Elba play the heads of The Wild Bunch and are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of being killed by the very person they are working for, just like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (more Travolta though, in this case).

The Girl is the Problem: Thandie Newton is the instigator of the troubles which put Gerard into play, just like Uma Thurman goes after Travolta, thereby putting him in a situation of life or death.

Multiple storylines: RocknRolla is not set up in the vignette fashion of Pulp Fiction, but both deal with a number of plot lines that all converge in the end to tie things up.

Sodomy Interruption: Both films have a scene where a guy is about to be raped by a pair of leather clothed dudes, when someone comes in and makes the snap judgment on who to kill.

It can be argued that some of these things are common to all movies of the crime/mob genre, but so many together in one film makes the case a little stronger. I’m not saying RocknRolla is bad, not in the least, but I left feeling like I’d seen it before.

RocknRolla is not going to be remembered in history for iconic performances, like Travolta and Jackson, but there was some good work being done. Butler hams it up nicely as a crook-cum-swashbuckler with no dancing feet. His inherent suaveness comes to bear in his scenes with Thandie, but he also gets to show his willingness to play that in the direction of a different gender. Which brings up one big difference between this and Pulp Fiction, and this could be easily attributed to the time periods, but RocknRolla was doused in homoerotic overtones. From the sodomy to the gay side characters to the subplot of Butler and his best friend in the gang, it never gets too far away from it. This provided for some really amusing humor and grinningly awkward scenes. Idris gets to play the straight man, no pun intended, to Butler’s machismo and he achieves it well. There is a certain calm to Idris on screen which makes me certain he’s going to be around for a long time to come. Tom Wilkinson also gets to walk a little on the more wacky side as the crime boss of London, trying to prove he’s still the big fish in town and time isn’t passing him by. Thandie, who I’ve enjoyed on screen in the past, doesn’t travel much farther beyond eye candy on this occasion. Jeremy Piven and Ludacris drop by as music producers, but get paltry little screen time. The one person who will leave the biggest visual impression is Toby Kebbell, as Johnny Quid. He spends most of the film shirtless and brings back frighteningly skinny images of Chistian Bale from The Machinist. Bale still wins the freakish battle, but Kebbell kept enough muscle tone to still look dangerous as well, which gives him an edge. Lastly, blink and you’ll miss Gemma Arterton, who will be seeing much more of in the upcoming Bond film, Quantum of Solace.

Ritchie on the other hand delivers once again in more traditional style. As I mentioned before, fans of those two early films of his will certainly enjoy this. The attitude is there, the raw edge is there and the camerawork is rife with quick cuts and whip pans, just like we’re used to from him. He also wrote the film again, which helps even more keep the style intact. I think many people will be glad to see the old Guy Ritchie back on the silver screen. Yet, all his past successes could be wiped out by the possibility of greatness with his upcoming film, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the questioning crusader, Jude Law as the encyclopedic Dr. Watson and Rachel McAdams as lady love interest. I’m containing my excitement for this, but just barely.

Recommendation: A good flick, bordering on great, far from amazing. If you’re a fan of Ritchie from the past, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never seen a film of his before, feel free to check this out, but don’t stop here, see Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well. As for the theater experience, after the initial whip panning frenzy in the first ten minutes, it settles down and becomes quite enjoyable. I also recommend Rasinettes over Goobers (take that, peanut lovers!).

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Rachel Getting Married: Performances Outpace Story

Posted by goldwriting on October 4, 2008

I remember what it was like to blink. Those were good days.

In every actor’s career there comes a moment where the critics and audiences rally around jumping for joy about how they’ve just witnessed a breakthrough performance. As stunning as these performances are, the term “breakthrough” always felt a little out of place to me since it’s only on rare occasions the actor in question is relatively new. Most times they are people who have been pounding the boards and scraping the screen for years. In those terms, the breakthrough is nothing more than a large group of people seeing that actor in a new light for the first time, mostly in something they never imagined before. Now the newly colored spotlight falls on Anne Hathaway and her powerful turn as Kym in Rachel’s Getting Married.

The film is a slice of life piece detailing a small space of time, only a few days, where Kym returns home from a rehab clinic just in time for her sister Rachel’s wedding. Anyone who has ever taken part in arranging a wedding, especially one taking place in the family home, knows the extreme stress already present, so toss a young, partially unstable girl into the mix and top it off with a nice coating of family denial and dark skeletons in the hallway closet, then you get the full picture of this film. Relationships are strained, ties pulled so tight and taut they could snap and still they try to work it out through screaming, laughing and crying (not necessarily in that order). After all, it’s about a wedding, who’s not happy at those?

Before giving Anne her due credit, let me shed some light on someone most people won’t know off the top of their heads. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the title role of Rachel and she does it with the utmost tenderness and subtlety. What she brings across is the inherent hatred, resentment and unending compassion sisters can feel for each other, even through the worst of storms. With a film more comfortable in the category of “ensemble piece”, Rosemarie is the catalyst and pushes the energy along, changing and charging every one of her scenes. But the light shines brightest on Anne Hathaway as Kym, the ex-junkie, ex-alcoholic, ex-return rehab patient bordering on becoming an ex-family member. Audiences claim this as a breakthrough performance because they fell in love with Anne in The Princess Diaries movies, Ella Enchanted and the wonderfully wicked The Devil Wears Prada. Yet what they might not remember is she’s played rougher, tougher roles in Havoc and Brokeback Mountain, showing the more mature and adult side of her skills. So I wasn’t all that shocked to witness the brilliance she brought to this film, but I will celebrate it all the same. Anne jumps in and exposes a vulnerability, a cavern of pain and lost love, which drives the emotional core of the picture. From opening credits to the closing moment, she is the elephant in the room everyone must deal with and the magical point is this is the first time where the audience can begin to empathize with the elephant and not the onlookers. I can’t end the acting portion of this review without bringing up Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as well. Bill plays her father and churns out a tenderness only an accomplished actor such as himself could generate. There are such small moments, such tiny fractures in his facade which allow you to peer into the heart of a man trying to choose between his greatest love and his greatest loss. On the other side, Debra Winger plays her mother, who has chosen to block out the pain in her past and skate by the rest of her life, allowing the blackness and hurt to fester and suffocate any chance at a real connection with her daughters. As you can read, the acting on display here is sensational and will undoubtedly be remembered during awards season.

As a total film, I’m not sure the story reaches the same heights. A lot of great scenes and spectacular moments are created, but the story lacks cohesion. A particular subplot about the family and its deep love for music is mentioned and referred to over and over, but never fully explained or explored, which weighs down later scenes during the wedding celebration and the overlong musical sequences. During most of the musical moments, all I really wanted was to get back to the story, back to the family and to Kym. Also, the connection between Rosemarie and her soon-to-be husband Sydney (played by Tunde Adebimpe) never quite comes across. There is a wonderful moment during their wedding vows, but it could have been helped even more if their relationship had been more centered earlier on.

On the directing front, Jonathan Demme, with the assistance of a touchingly tender script from Jenny Lumet, helps craft a reality we can all believe in, a home we can all feel we’ve been to before. Much of this intimacy and nuance came from the free form style of camera movement, with the actors never knowing where and when the camera was going to appear on them. Everyone was basically playing everything from the moment he yelled action, so there were emotional surprises around every pan of the camera. That technique gave the movie a certain level of improv or even documentary feeling, like the audience was the most silent of voyeurs.

Recommendation: A powerful series of moments, filled with terrific acting, that don’t quite come together as a film. Certainly has great value to witness, but the theater experience might not be necessary. Also, this really is meant for those viewers not afraid to open themselves up to it.

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Eagle Eye: I Think I’ve Gone Blind (SPOLIERS)

Posted by goldwriting on September 28, 2008

What do you mean those Indy fans are still pissed off? Man, they are persistent.

Shia LeBeouf is the boy with the golden ticket. We’ve watched him rise from talent on the TV screen in Even Stevens, make a breakthrough performance in The Battle of Shaker Heights (one of the winning films from the ambitious Project Greenlight) and land squarely in the middle of some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and Transformers. His star is shining bright in the Hollywood skyline and nothing seems to be slowing him down…

except for the fact his acting skills are getting completely lost in terrible, and I mean truly terrible, scripts. Let’s give his newest visual extravaganza a look see.

Eagle Eye is the story of Jerry Shaw (LeBeouf), a young, brilliant son who never applied himself to anything and is scraping by in a droll existence dodging his landlady and bluffing money in poker games in the back room of his copy store job. This is also the story of Rachel Holloman (played by Michelle Monaghan), a pretty, young and bitterly divorced woman who’s trying to vicariously live out her wild youth through her friends, while dedicating her only strength and passion to her young son. These two seemingly total opposites are “activated” and sent kicking and screaming through a dangerous series of hoops by an unknown voice on their phones, who can seemingly track them absolutely anywhere. Jerry is forced into it because he’s been framed as a terrorist, while Rachel runs the gambit to save the life of her son. Together they try to stay alive long enough to figure out what it is they are supposed to accomplish.

*There you have the basic set up. From this point on, there are spoilers because it is impossible to write about the issues with this film without giving away the plot twists. You’ve been warned.*

There is no person on the other end of the phone. It’s a computer called Aria who was designed and built by the Department of Defense and is now on the warpath to eradicate the chain of command, all the way up to the President, because they disobeyed a tactical recommendation she gave them. So after all the hype and excitement around the movie, it turns out to be nothing more than a poor remake of WarGames. This is only made more offensive by the fact that I loved WarGames as a kid and amazingly enough the film still holds up today, which many from that time period don’t, especially when they have to do with computer technology.

The film pretty much unravels from the moment you are told everything is being run and designed by a rogue artificial intelligence. The trailers were specifically designed to hide this fact, giving off more of a “big brother” fright tactic, and I applaud that marketing plan, except the only time that works is when the true plot twist in the theater is more interesting than the one we already imagined. This is not the case with Eagle Eye. No computer system would ever create such a convoluted and hole-ridden assassination plot. Computer systems are based on logic, even the ones we give personalities to, but Aria decides to make Shia and Michelle run rampant through downtown streets in numerous cities, dodging death and destruction at every turn, only so they can get into Aria’s control panel and undo a biometric lock put in place by…wait for it…wait for it…Shia’s twin brother, Ethan Shaw. We’re supposed to believe that once this lock is removed, Aria can proceed with her plan to destroy the chain of command. Not bad, as long as the audience chooses to notice that by this point in the movie the plan had no way of stopping, even if the lock was still in place. All the pieces were already in motion and Aria was pretty much unnecessary to the assassination.

Seriously, I could go on and on about the plot holes and logical misfires in this script. They range from a cell phone which can be triggered to only light up in short bursts and used to relay Morse code (I don’t know about you, but one click on mine and it stays lit for at least three seconds, no matter what) to the fact that only one mini-mart shop in all of Washington D.C. has a security camera not hooked up to any external network. The amount of disbelief needed in this film to make it enjoyable is staggering, almost more than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Transparent Ego Issues. No one actually tried to make sense of anything in the film and it runs on the belief if you move the camera around fast enough no one will notice. Well I noticed and I’m nowhere near the only one.

D.J. Caruso, the director of this silver screen misfit, is teetering on the brink of becoming Michael Bay, which I’m sure to some people is not a bad thing. He could follow this path and keep making bigger and bigger movies with less and less attention paid to the story or plot, but there’s a certain amount of respect traded to the devil of special effects and deep pocket budgets. He won a ton of people to his side with his Rear Window homage, Disturbia, and gained Shia as his modern male muse, but this recent visual splatterstorm of nonsense has brought him back to square one. The cast of the movie, which also included Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, kept up their end of the bargain, but no one could perform their way into anything meaningful inside the web of failed logic and shark jumping. The blame firmly rests on the shoulders of screenwriters John Glenn and Travis Wright, which is frightening since these two are currently writing the remakes of Clash of the Titans and The Warriors. If there is justice in the film world, let their directors know how to rewrite on set.

Recommendation: If you’ve read the whole review to this point, this part should be fairly clear. Feel free to make up your own mind, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m a writer myself and I know this review was rather harsh, but I call it like I see it, what I saw was a total mess.

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Burn After Reading: Coen’s Bring Imperfect Wackiness

Posted by goldwriting on September 24, 2008

You mean I can only be nominated for one Oscar at a time? But whyyyyyy???

As September crosses into the present, film critics and aficionados everywhere begin grinning and twitching in excitement. Oscar movies are officially on their way to the nearest silver screen. With the ribbon of quality content being cut, the first expected contender came from the brotherly duo not unfamiliar with the Oscar machine, the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Fresh off the heels of their Best Directing, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars last year for No Country for Old Men, the cinematic brothers brought us a new chapter in their visual memoirs, Burn After Reading, a throwback to the darkly humorous days of Fargo, which also won them a Best Original Screenplay statue. Into the mix of directorial style and writing finesse we gained the acting skills of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Frances McDormand is also along for the ride, but she’s a Coen staple (and also married to half the duo, Joel Coen). This movie had Oscar potential written all over it, so the only question going in was would it live up to the expectations?

Swing…the ball connects…it’s going deep…almost there…awww. Ground rule double.

This is not an Academy award winning film and certainly not one of their best, but still a nice way to slide into the season of quality content over box office boffo. Burn After Reading is a quirky, silly tale following a disc of information thought to contain CIA secrets from a disgraced and angry analyst (Malkovich), which is found in a local gym and tightly grasped by the hands of a woman (McDormand) desperate for money to cover her plastic surgeries. Mostly what the Coen brothers are known for is the depth and creativity of their characters and this film does well to cover the bases on that point. Frances McDormand plays Linda, a terribly pathetic woman so deathly afraid of aging and the current state of her body that she has blinders on to the rest of the world and the happiness it can offer. She brings the solid level of commitment and shine we’ve come to know her for. Brad Pitt joins in with what has to be his silliest and least intelligent character to date, Chad, a constantly hyper-active, exercise fanatic who works with Linda at a gym called Hardbodies. I have to imagine this was a fun role for him to play since he hardly gets to let loose like this anymore, not since 12 Monkeys. He provided a lot of the early humor in the film, but also drops one of the biggest plot twists halfway through. Clooney brings to life Harry, a ex-personal bodygaurd with a penchant for compulsive lying and an addiction to sex. George only gets to be this wacky under the tutelage of the Coen brothers, so even while it’s not his best work by any means, it’s a fun reminder that he can indeed get goofy with the rest of the gang. Tilda plays the ice queen wife of Malkovich, while also having an affair with Clooney. Watching her in this role, along with some others, I wonder when her picture will be included in the dictionary next to “emasculating”. Not to be left out of any discussion about over-the-top characters, Malkovich plays his part to the hilt, but I honestly feel his best moments are in the opening scene. There’s not much of an arc for him, so only seeing him come to life early on really provides any surprise and unseen moments.

Burn plays inside the footprints of Fargo, but never quite catches up to it. The Coens obviously know their craft and continue to put material out there with their own voice and character stamp, but this film felt a little like a step back for them. Maybe it was just a way to resettle into the dark comedy they are known for after their detour into heavy drama with No Country. Also running parallel to this is the question of the marketing campaign. Again the trailer was cut in a fashion to show one type of movie, but once you were in the theater it became something different, not wildly so, but still there is a distinct shift in tone from wacky comedy to dark comedy, and sometimes those audiences don’t mix well. It’s like seeing a trailer for Police Academy and getting Rushmore. Two great tastes that taste awful together.

Recommendation: If you’re a devout fan, you’ve already seen it anyway. If you’re on the fence, wait until video. If you’re completely on the other side of the fence, you still read this far anyway? I’ll take that as a compliment. Thanks. đŸ™‚

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Towelhead: A Hat Trick of Anxiety, Trauma and Beauty

Posted by goldwriting on September 3, 2008

I’m sure there’s a joke out there somewhere to make about a movie with themes like this, but I’m not going there. So phbbbtttt…

Nothing sets the mood like walking into a movie already brimming with controversy before it ever hits a single silver screen. So it was with the new storytime vision of Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under. With those two titles under your belt, every audience member knows they are in for something darkly humorous, unusually frank and powerfully uncomfortable. Once again, Alan Ball did not disappoint on any count.

Towelhead is the story of Jasira, a young thirteen year old girl reaching the inevitable point in her life where changes occur in her body and her surroundings, but none of the adults around her represent anything close to a good role model. Without proper guidance Jasira stumbles tragically into puberty and has to fight off racism, sexism and the primal urges of others as well as her own. Nothing makes sense to her anymore and a new fight emerges when someone actually tries to care for her and make her recognize right from wrong.

This film penetrates through layer upon layer of social taboo and almost dares the audience to flinch, maybe even leave if they can’t handle it. The depths of humiliation and abuse Jasira sinks into are troubling to say the least, but there does seem to be a method to the madness behind the scenes. The story does attempt to say something important about young children, especially girls, who are victimized. Too many times once a tragedy has occured in a young girl’s life, she is forever treated like a victim and never expected to fully return to a normal, well balanced life, but Alan Ball strove to show a different possibility. He created a world where Jasira suffers terrible act upon terrible act, but continues her fight for understanding and once she does fully come to grips with what is happening to her, it becomes a fight to take back control of her own life. Also brought to bear upon the social mindset is the dispicable parenting that takes place. Jasira is an all too common example of divorced parents using their child as a weapon against each other and losing all recognition of the small impressionable person in between. It’s not to say what happens in Towelhead happens to every child, I surely hope not, but the allusions drawn here are far from unheard of.

The thematics will feel somewhat familiar to those in touch with Ball’s previous works, but he claims to have not noticed that until after filming was already done. Also part of the excuse is Ball didn’t write the story, he adapted the script from the novel of the same name by Alicia Erian, a middle eastern woman herself. Together, Alicia and Alan both defended the use of the title Towelhead in the face of protests from American Muslim groups across the nation. It’s a gray area to be sure. Alicia and Alan actually changed the name to Nothing is Private before they screened at Cannes because they were so afraid of the reaction (and it’s still listed on IMDB under that title), but after the film was sold, the studio actually asked for them to change it back. Everyone involved seemed to feel the inherent racism in the title and the shocking nature of it was integral to the story they were trying to tell. Opposers feel it is sensationalist and only helps further the use of such a deroggatory term. In my opinion, it’s a tough sell to try and make them change it since it gets embroiled in a censorship vs. artistry dispute, but I do see a double standard in our country where this movie can get released and supported, but Nas is forced to change the name of his last album away from N****r for exactly the same reasons. I think that proves the point that we may have come a long way in the fight against racism, but it’s only against some cultures, not all.

OK, off my political soapbox, back to the movie. Like I expected, Towelhead is incredibly well done, but equally uncomfortable. Numerous times I shifted around in my seat because there was no way to watch the screen and feel at ease with what I was being shown. Alan made this effect possible with strong unapologetic writing and brilliant casting. Summer Bishil takes on the impressive and heavy role of Jasira and delivers a stunning performace, which for her is nearly a debut (she’d done some children’s TV movies before, but nothing of this level or caliber). Her nievete in acting only helped to make Jasira more innocent on screen, creating even more torment when that innocence is threatened. It was a inceredibly brave role to play and I would not be surprised if her name is mentioned around Oscar time. Aaron Eckhart once again proves he can play any kind of next door neighbor, the one you invite over and cook hot dogs with or the one you make sure you lock the side doors against. This time he plays the more devious and dispicable of the two and his commitment to the role was impressive and frightening to say the least. Playing the role of Jasira’s father, Peter Macdissi had an entirely new road to travel as a man ill equipped for fatherhood in America during this day and age, while also fighting off racism both against him and from him. My feelings towards his character were very close to those of Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine. Both were paternal characters who were incredibly easy to hate, but when the film tries to redeem them at the end, it feels like too little too late. I will say in Towelhead, Peter’s character makes a stronger turn in the third act, but so much animosity is built up by then, it’s hard for an audience to empathize. Trying to save adults everyone from being portrayed as completely inept is Toni Collette. She plays a pregnant neighbor on the other side who begins to see terrible possibilities open in front of her and does her best to protect and shelter the young girl, sometimes even from Jasira herself. It was a nice touch to make the character pregnant since it added an extra level of worry and panic over whether something like this could happen to her own incoming child.

Recommendation: This is not a sunny afternoon matinee and certainly, positively not a date movie. But, if you are a fan of good, powerful and emotional filmmaking, strap yourself in because this is a heavy ride. See it in the theater for that extra added power, since it won’t be so easy to pause or change the channel.

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Death Race: Updated, Not Improved.

Posted by goldwriting on August 22, 2008

The reason I am the only thing in focus here is sheer power of the “stare”. Don’t try it at home.

There has always been a trend in Hollywood to go back and remake classics, but the term “classics” is loosely defined between critically acclaimed movies and those which we just have a hell of time watching over and over again, sometimes re-coined as “cult classics”. Fans of both good and bad films raise their respective hands in horror and disbelief everytime another remake is greenlit, while others furrow their brows in confusion as to what inner voices compelled movie execs to take on that particular film update. So here we are again, witnessing the results of nervous hands reaching back into the annals of film history for something to bring back, something to put new wrapping paper on and re-gift to a whole new audience. Happy Birthday, Movie Fans; It’s Death Race!

The original film, Death Race 2000, was produced by legendary film icon Roger Corman, who also acted as one of the producers for the update as well. It was yet one more notch in the belt of an already stellar B-movie career, which included gems like The Little Shop of Horrors, Dementia 13 and Big Bad Mama. Another tidbit the former Death Race had on it’s side was the performances of Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine as Machine Gun Joe and Frankenstein respectively. Both were big names already, with Stallone only one year away from the stardom of Rocky, and these two actors lend a huge amount of camp value to digging through the DVD rental racks just to discover this timeless story of pre-eminent road rage. You might be thinking to yourself, without those two actors, how can this remake hold up? Well, the answer is simple, find a younger actor who can seemingly play absolutely any character with a car and a bad attitude: Jason Statham.

For those who have been living under a rock for the past ten years, Jason Statham is one of the most under-appreciated action stars of our generation. Launching himself to critical appeal in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998 he cemented his career moving forward by getting cast as the kung-fu thrilling, one liner spouting and impossibly percise driving lead in The Transporter. His trail through the movie ranks has been a tad wobbly at times, like his starring role in Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King, but no one can fault him for striking while the iron is hot. Statham continues his streak in this flick with a heap of glaring shots through broken windshields and stare down moments after taking unbelievable punches and kicks to the head. The only piece missing for the true Statham fan is a distinct lack of martial arts, which makes sense on the story side of things, but I still wished for one good spin kick, ridgehand chop to the neck or even better, a homage to the greased pig fight ala Transporter style.

Surrounding our steely-eyed hero are a couple of people worth mentioning. Ian McShane, who is most recently known for mercilessly killing and beating people down in the Old West town of Deadwood, plays Coach, the institutionalized leader of Statham’s pit crew. Tyrese Gibson brings his own version of the stone cold glare over to play as the new Machine Gun Joe, which for one reason or another the new writers decided to make gay. Joan Allen takes a striking departure from her usual fare and turns in a stereotyped performance as the fiendishly powerful warden of the futuristic prison where the Death Race takes place. To get a literary glimpse into her role, picture her performance as Pam Landy from the last two Bourne films and turn the bitchiness up three more notches. Lastly, rounding out the cast, as well as her wardrobe, is the film debut of the dangerously curvy Natalie Martinez as Case, the navigator in Statham’s rolling wagon of destruction. The eye candy in this flick just got a little spicy.

The movie gives you exactly what you expect, fast cars, loud guns and explosions one after another. There are a few really impressive stunt sequences and the realism of the shots seemingly prompted the studio to put up a disclaimer at the end of the film to make sure people don’t go home that night and try to mount mini-cannons on the hood of their Honda Civic. One of the main things I can attack about this flick is not the movie itself, but the trailer. The first trailer to hit the screens was way too long and showed each and every plot twist. Admittedly, you don’t sit down for this with popcorn in hand expecting to be dazzled by well written story elements, but at least give the movie a chance to hit on all cylinders (oh hell yes, car references get me bonus points in this one).

Recommendation: It’s not bad for the die-hard Jason Statham fans and road rage enthusiasts, but for the genre it lands in, I might lean towards the recent decapitation-fest Doomsday. The theater experience is only going to help this one out, so hit up a matinĂ©e if you’re feeling the fire for it.

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Traitor: Walking the thin, tense line.

Posted by goldwriting on August 9, 2008

“Apologize for making fun of my wind-up puppy collection.”

“Not until you apologize for making fun of my pitch for ‘Dumb and Dumber 3: The Dumbest’.”

“…”

In a cinematic climate recently proven to be tired of movies dealing with the current war in the Middle East, a new fighter enters the fray. Traitor attempts to be something different, a story dealing with the conflict in that part of the world, but also dealing with its effects on people of the Muslim faith in the Westernized world as well. On top of that daunting task, it also reaches for the goal of creating tension, action, anxiety and even a little humor in a deeply political thriller. Oh, and did I mention it was from a first-time feature director? Yep, that’s one big slice of pie to cut off. So how did it fare? Let’s start from the surface and work our way in.

If you’re any fan or connoisseur of cinema, you absolutely have to take your hat off to Don Cheadle. The man has a resume going back years and years and nary a miss in the bunch. There are a few stumbles (I’m looking at you, Swordfish), but overall once Don Cheadle is added to the cast, you’re film instantly takes a step up in the quality column. Going all the way back to Colors and his long stint on the highly acclaimed TV show Picket Fences, Don has only continued his trail of solid performances with the Oceans trilogy, Crash and Hotel Rwanda. In Traitor, Don plays a Muslim American who is caught not between his faith and the Western world, but between his faith and others who interpret the same faith differently. This is the real core to much of the fighting in the world today and this film seeks to uncover some of that for audiences which are nearly foreign to the concept of non-Judeo-Christian values being misinterpreted. Don continually resolves himself on screen with what he wants and what he has to do, all while holding the quiet and stoic presence he has come to be known for. It’s no surprise that his performance is filled with intensity and passion, since he is also a producer on the project and helped get it made under the banner of Overture Films. Once again this is a great example of desire and talent coming together with a well written story.

On the directing side, Jeffery Nachmanoff, who is also the writer, pulls visual influences from other character driven crime stories like Traffic and The French Connection. Traitor has a dirty, worn aesthetic which lends a helping hand to the gritty nature of the subject and landscape of the film. Jeffery weaves two stories together, that of our main characters challenges over his faith and the story of the other side, those people with no struggles over faith and how that can be abused by those in positions of religious power. It boils down to a moral tale about making your own choices and following your heart over the decisions and desires of others. It is a successful effort from this first time feature director, but it did have a handful of missteps. First and foremost, there exists a line where creating tension in the audience changes from excitement to uncomfortability and anxiety. We love being scared, we love being tense, hell, that’s how the enitre horror movie genre lives and breathes, but you can’t keep the audience in that physical and emotional state for too long at one time. Breaks, laugh lines, moments to breathe have to be interspersed to give people time to recoup and let the tension out of their muscles. Traitor sways over that line numerous times in the movie, especially during intercut scenes with a number of storylines happening simultaneously. Lastly, (*minor spoiler*) there is a moment where we are shown a number of ordinary Americans doing their daily routines, while in the background plays a news report about racial profiling and the rampant dissolution of civil rights of stereotypical Muslim looking citizens directly after the 9/11 attacks. The music, the visuals and the content was directed to make the audience feel and agree with the impropriety of the racial profiling, yet later on in the film we are shown that every person we saw during that montage was actually a terrorist as well. It went from telling us how we should trust our fellow man to needing to be prepared to fight off our local coffee store employee. (*minor spoiler over*)

Worth mentioning alongside Don Cheadle are the performances of Guy Pearce, who certainly doesn’t get enough screen time in the major studio films, and Said Taghmaoui, who plays Omar, the devout extremist who brings Don Cheadle into the terrorist fold. Both of these actors really helped shape the story and world on each side of Don and allow him to bring his full range to the movie as a whole, instead of just one storyline. Now, worth mentioning on the bad side of the scale, is the intentionally misleading trailer. The trailer makes this movie look like it’s the black version of The Bourne Identity, with car chases, fist fights and intense spy scenarios, but very little of that is actually present. It was only cut that way to entice American audiences who might otherwise not pay money to sit and watch a slow paced, heavily political tension piece, but that is what Traitor really is. Walking out, I was really happy I had seen it, but I definitely resented the trickery from the studio to try and get me hyped for something it didn’t deliver.

Recommendation: If you don’t mind the tension levels, check this out for sure. Oh, and to really freak out your friends with the wealth of your movie knowledge, add this movie whenever you’re talking about films from the mind of comedian Steve Martin. Yeah, they’ll look at you weird, but you’ll know you’re right. Enjoy the glow.

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