Archive | November 2014

The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Brian De Palma

Starring Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness

Sean Connery as Jim Malone

Robert De Niro as Al Capone

Imdb Link

Elliot Ness is a cop in Chicago who decides to take down Al Capone’s criminal empire with his group of four cops who call themselves “The Untouchables.”

The Untouchables was the ending to a shitty week of films that I needed. The Untouchables is everything I could ever want in a gangster movie and more. I love the story of Al Capone’s downfall, he’s one of the most interesting criminals in history (speaking of which, I’d love to see a biopic of his rise to power), and I also feel some personal connection to it because my grandfather was born in prohibition era Chicago, and his father bought bootlegged alcohol from Al Capone before Capone’s gang became an empire. While I know that The Untouchables takes a lot of artistic license in making this an action film, when in real life, Capone never tried to kill any of the untouchables and simply tried to bribe them, I think they did the story justice. I love Brian De Palma’s style of filmmaking, he uses a ton of slow motion, close ups, and lots of homages to old films. My favorite sequence in the entire film is the train station shootout on the stairs, entirely slow motion, referencing Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa steps massacre scene with the baby rolling down the steps. I keep telling myself that I really need to watch more of De Palma’s films, because I really like his style. He’s one of the best auteurs in the game, and when he’s working with the right team, he can really do something special. One thing I’ve noticed in the few films I’ve seen by him is he really likes focusing on music. Phantom of the Paradise has one of the best soundtracks of the seventies, and Scarface tries to feel modern by using synthesizers (I hated Scarface’s music, but it is a big part of the style of the film). With The Untouchables, De Palma brings classic spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone in, one of my favorite composers of all-time, and he uses the music to make this gangster epic feel like a western. The trumpets, guitars, harmonicas, and everything else in this score would feel right at home in a Sergio Leone epic. I think De Palma chose to use this music to establish prohibition as a kind of lawless society, even though cars are driving around, and everyone is in trenchcoats and fedoras instead of cowboy boots and hats, this society is operating just like the wild west. Morricone’s score might not be something I’d like on my iTunes playlist, but it fits the film like a glove. I also really have to praise David Mamet’s script, he’s one of my favorite playwrights, American Buffalo is one of my ten favorites plays ever written. Mamet’s script is awesome, the man knows how to write dialogue like no other. It’s quick, clever, yet realistic and believable. The cinematography looks stunning, the use of shadows is reminiscent to old film-noirs, and the lighting reminds me of The Godfather.  In the end, everything about this movie was great (except for Kevin Costner, that guy can’t act). It’s an incredibly entertaining, action packed adventure through gangland Chicago.

Advertisements

Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game

★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Doug Liman

Starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame

Sean Penn as Joe Wilson

Imdb Link

Valerie Plame is a CIA operative whose husband writes an article in the New York Times, criticizing the Bush administration, and the war in Iraq.

Fair Game is one of the most dull spy movies I have ever seen. I understand that real life spy work is not like a James Bond film at all times, and this is based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean that it can be excused for being so uninteresting. It’s an interesting story that’s suited for a magazine article, “my fight with the Bush administration” or something like that, but as a feature length film, it does not work. Fair Game tells the story of Valerie Plame, a covert operative in the CIA who sent her husband to check out some alleged uranium mines in Niger, and returned to say that nothing is there, only to have the government put out a report that Niger had sold uranium from these fields to Saddam Hussein. So he writes a controversial article in the New York Times, which leads the government to reveal his wife’s identity, and leads to Sean Penn giving a bunch of political speeches about how much the Bush administration sucks. This movie is not a thriller, this is not a spy movie, this is not a military intelligence thriller about how wrong we were in going into Iraq. This is a movie that is just one huge political message of “fuck George Bush.” I agree with the political messages, and I think George Bush sucks, but seriously, I’m not watching your film so that you can tell me exactly how much George Bush sucks. I want a story, compelling characters, interesting filmmaking techniques. I want to watch Sean Penn perform, not yell about his actual real life political views. I have no problem if a film has political messages, that’s completely fine by me, but I definitely do not like when the only thing a film has to say are political slander, and the film only exists as a piece of hate mail to someone. Aside from that, Fair Game does nothing interesting in its filmmaking, it plays it very safe, the camera angles are very ordinary, the lighting is a typical “we’ll make this look dark so that it looks gritty,” type thing, the editing is passable and nothing more. I will say however, that Naomi Watts does quite a great job in this film. I was impressed with her performance, however, it wasn’t portrayed as a lead role, even though this is a biopic about Valerie Plame, she seemed to be the supporting character to Sean Penn’s politics.

Salt (2010)

Salt

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Starring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt

Imdb Link

Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy, sent to assassinate the Russian president while he visits a funeral.

Well, with this and The A-Team, I got two action movie failures in one day. Both for incredibly different reasons. Salt is one of the most convoluted films I have ever seen, with more plot twists in its 90-minute runtime than in M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. This is the story of a CIA agent, who is accused of being a spy for the KGB, and instead of defending herself from the accusation, she runs away, and kills a bunch of CIA agents, just because, then it turns out she actually is a part of the KGB, but maybe she doesn’t want to be? And which side is she on? And why does everything have to be so confusing in this movie, it’s like they couldn’t do anything the straight forward way, like it would actually happen in real life. No person would ever act like anyone in this film, even spies have logic, no scratch that, spies should have more logic than anyone else, yet it seemed like no one did a single rational thing in the entire runtime of the film. The characters were incredibly poorly written, and we never learn anything about any of them other than “I’m a spy.” The tagline for the movie has had me curious since its release in 2010, “Who is Salt?” it asks, and after watching the movie, I ask the same question. Seriously what was going on in that character’s brain, is she secretly working for North Korea and fucking over both Russia and America? Who is she really? I had no clue by the end of the film. Another thing that’s bothering me about the film is the fact that it lacks any heart or fun that ridiculous action movies need. In movies where people are defying nearly every law of physics with stunts, you need to keep that in perspective and have a sense of humor. A sense of humor can show it isn’t meant to be realistic, and so it becomes acceptable. Salt has no sense of humor, so it’s just a very dark and serious movie where the universe seems to not obey physics. I will admit that I laughed a good deal at Salt’s husband’s ridiculous accent and his speeches about spiders, though I don’t think that was meant to be funny, they couldn’t have chosen a worse actor or job for Angelina Jolie’s love interest. Salt was an incredibly convoluted movie that seemed to be so interested in surprising the audience that it forgot to have a coherent plot and what makes my favorite action films my favorites, a sense of fun.

The A-Team (2010)

The A-Team

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Joe Carnahan

Starring Liam Neeson as Hannibal

Bradley Cooper as Face

Quinton Jackson as Baracus

Sharlito Copley as Murdock

Imdb Link

A high skilled group of military operatives are framed for the theft of some money printing plates.

I think that recently I’ve been noticing frustrating trends in action movies more than I used to. Shaky cam fight scenes and incomprehensible edits to mask actual violence are all over the place, and it has really been bothering me. Never have I been so bothered by shaky cam in any action movie as I was in The A-Team though. This is the first time that any film has actually made me feel motion sick from the way it’s filmed. It was just constant shaking, swooping, swerving, and other camera moves that were obviously meant to conceal violence that would otherwise be witnessed. Aside from that, the plot is ridiculous, and not in a usual, “fun action movie” way. It was ridiculous to a point where any logic went out the window, and it was nearly impossible to suspend disbelief and enjoy it. The performances from all of the actors felt more like imitations than actual performances, for example, Quinton Jackson didn’t make his character his own, he was simply doing a very poor Mr. T impersonation. I haven’t seen the original TV show, but I’d imagine that all the other actors were doing the same. I did often find Sharlito Copley entertaining to watch, but he got really annoying at times, and seemed like he was simply there to be “zany.” Overall, I was definitely not a fan of this film. It has occasional moments where it looks like it could be getting better, but it never really does. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Certified Copy (2011)

Certified Copy

★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Starring Juliette Binoche as Elle

William Shimell as James Miller

Imdb Link

A French antique store owner, Elle, who lives in Tuscany, invites an author to spend a day with her.

I don’t get confused by films often, I can usually grasp what’s going on pretty easily, but after watching Certified Copy, I can truly say that I have no clue what the hell just happened. This is a film that I would liken to a plain little box with a lock on it, and a missing key. This is definitely not a good thing. Because a box is never exciting, it’s what is inside that counts, and we never get to figure out what is in there. The story of Certified Copy revolves around two characters, a man and a woman who have never met before going to a remote Italian town together, when all of a sudden a waitress mistakes the two of them as a married couple, and then I guess all of a sudden they’re actually married and haven’t seen each other in forever, or something, or maybe they aren’t and nothing makes sense. There is no way to understand exactly what the connection between the characters is unless you want to make theories about Elle using the author as a “copy” of her actual husband and taking her anger out on him. I’m not a fan of having to come up with farfetched theories to explain the events of a film, especially when the events just felt so uninteresting in the first place. I really enjoyed Abbas Kiarostami’s 2013 film Like Someone in Love, I thought it was a beautiful, slow moving journey through an escort’s daily life, and mentorship. However, his style is definitely… not suitable for every film. He really likes silence, and I’ve heard it said that he hates getting emotional reactions to his films, and cuts scenes that get laughter or any response in early screenings. So in a film that is 95% talking, that is very hard to pull off. It ends up being a lot of uninteresting dialogue that loops over the same themes in order to hit a point in instead of ever treading over any area that will get a reaction from the audience. So no comic relief, no real tension, nothing that makes us truly connect with the characters. Instead, we seem to hear “is a copy ever truly as great as the original” a billion times. Juliette Binoche does a good job, but it’s hard to be really spectacular with the material at hand. There was also some very interesting cinematography, for example, one shot in which we watch a conversation in a car driving through a village, and on one plane we can see the conversation, on another we can see the reflection of the deep blue sky and the buildings on either side of the car, and then finally we can see the people of the village moving around outside the car. The composition of shots like these were simply magnificent. Still, in the end Certified Copy is way too much work with no reward.

The American (2010)

The American

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney as Jack

Imdb Link

An assassin, whose name may or may not be Jack, is sent to a remote Italian village to lay low from enemies and await further instructions.

The American would be what it would look like if you gave a director like Michael Haneke the Bond franchise with George Clooney in the lead. This is a pretty typical spy thriller script that has a director who took it in a completely different direction. The American is a very slow moving movie, but it doesn’t have a slow moving plot, it’s the style of the filmmaking, the way that every shot takes its time, the actors don’t rush through their movements. This is a spy movie filmed in the style of a European art house piece, which makes it unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’m not typically an enormous fan of European art-house (I find that like every genre, there’s a lot of great stuff, but then you get the films that miss the point and try and copy the style ending up feeling empty and incredibly pretentious), but I love how it was thrown in as a twist to the spy genre, and it fit the story and location of the film like a glove. So I do really enjoy the film, but as with any film, there are flaws, in this case, the flaws can really weigh it down at moments. The script is where it seems the majority of my problems with the film come from. The plot becomes very stretched out at times, and there isn’t enough conflict throughout the entire film. The fact that an entire section is devoted to Clooney trying to assemble a homemade gun shows that maybe they didn’t have enough story to work with. Furthermore, I think that having a main character who has pretty much zero personality traits other than “mysterious” makes them hard to relate with. Other than that, the director, Anton Corbijn proves with The American that he can take a mediocre script and turn it into something pretty interesting and different. The American is no James Bond movie, it isn’t packed with action or intrigue, but it does have a lot of beautiful shots of the Italian countryside, and a very unique look at an overdone genre.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Starring Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp

Imdb Link

2nd watch

The Little Tramp falls in love with a blind girl, selling flowers on the streets of the city, and pretends to be a rich man to impress her.

I’m incredibly impressed by the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray of City Lights, which makes this film look like it could have been made in the same year as The Artist. The transfer looks incredible, and I think it even helped me appreciate the film even more than I already did. City Lights is everything anyone could wish for in a Chaplin film. It is hilarious, sweet, heartwarming, while also having some very deep, subtle themes about love in it. This is by far my favorite Chaplin film, mainly because it feels to me as though it explores so many different things. City Lights, if broken up, could be four or five great short films, each with a separate gag. What really makes the film special though, is how even though these scenes could all be separate classic short films, they manage to bridge between each other to tell the most beautiful story possible. The variety between the different gags keeps it interesting and fun, and somehow, none of it ever feels like it belongs to a different film, it never becomes disjointed, and every moment goes towards the greater purpose of the piece. In the end, this movie is the most touching Chaplin film, with the reunion that Chaplin has been avoiding, fearing the flower girl will be disgusted by his appearance. In just a few glances, and a smile, we know exactly what is going to happen next in the story. This is silent film done right. We don’t need to be told everything, we don’t need to hear words to know that they’ll end up together, all we need are the faces of these two wonderful actors. Chaplin’s City Lights is a masterpiece of silent cinema, one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

Tracks (2014)

Tracks

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by John Curran

Starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson

Imdb Link

Robyn Davidson is a young Australian woman who decides to leave everything behind and go on a walk across Australia.

Tracks is the perfect example of an absolutely average film. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was just about as plain and average as it gets. As I said earlier this week in my review for Peter Weir’s The Way Back, I typically love films about long voyages, a genre that Tracks falls into. However, it didn’t seem like there was enough of what makes me typically love those types of films here. Some things that make me typically love those grand voyage films are the cinematography which can really focus on the beauty of the world, and the peaceful nature of these films. Tracks really didn’t have any of the things that typically makes me love these films. The cinematography was perfectly average, it did not focus as much on nature as it should have, and instead is mainly just boring angles on Robyn and her camels. There were some incredibly beautiful shots, but they were too few with too much boring looking stuff in between them. I think that the one thing about Tracks that stood out was Mia Wasikowska’s performance. I’m not usually a big fan of hers, but she did a very good job here. Her performance as Robyn Davidson is understated, while also very powerful. She has some incredible moments. I don’t think she’ll end up being a player in the Best Actress race, but for now, she’s in my top five of the year. She really does standout as the best part of the film. Also, I know this is a true story, but damn does the thought of going on a solo voyage across Australia, and camping unprotected outside bother the hell out of me. Isn’t there, you know, lots and lots of animals that can kill you in Australia? Taking a voyage like this on isn’t very inspirational, it’s just kind of stupid. Anyways, Tracks covers 2000 miles in its protagonist’s walk, half of the 4000 miles in The Way Back, which is fitting, because Tracks is half the film that The Way Back is.

Please Give (2010)

Please Give

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Starring Catherine Keener as Kate

Rebecca Hall as Rebecca

Oliver Platt as Alex

Imdb Link

Kate and Alex have bought the apartment next door to them, which is inhabited by an elderly woman who just won’t seem to die, the elderly woman’s two granddaughters feel that Kate and Alex are like vultures.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much from Please Give seeing as I hadn’t enjoyed Nicole Holofcener’s previous film, Friends with Money. However, Please Give was a really charming, funny, and wise film. One major problem I had with Friends with Money was that it felt like it was basically a film that’s theme was “it’s hard to be a rich white woman.” I really enjoyed Please Give because it seemed to be making fun of that. Yes, the film centers on the upper class in New York city, but it makes fun of them more than it celebrates them. Here, we see these people as hypocrites, they’re nice people, but Holofcener has actually given them flaws this time. Kate, for example, is very self righteous, and there are a lot of funny moments where she feels she has to give to the less fortunate. She’ll give homeless people twenty dollar bills, while saying things that would really just make them feel bad about themselves. You can really see how Holofcener has written this as a character point where Kate thinks she’s being a good person, when she’s really just trying to prove to everyone else that she’s better than them. You can really see Holofcener’s growth in this film, as she writes actually realistic, developed characters in this film. Please Give is a comedy that never makes you laugh out loud, but it’s one that is always very charming. I don’t think I laughed out loud once, but that’s not a bad thing as I was always amused. Please Give is one of the better films in the slice of upper class New York life genre, a group of films I’ve never cared for much. It doesn’t have much of a plot, and relies on the characters interactions overall. It feels kind of insignificant in the end, like we didn’t really need to be told this story, but it is a pleasant ride.

Green Zone (2010)

Green Zone

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring Matt Damon as Roy Miller

Imdb Link

A soldier in Iraq, Roy Miller, starts to notice that intel on the WMDs seems to always lead to nothing, and dives deeper into what could be a conspiracy.

Paul Greengrass has to represent everything I hate about modern day action filmmaking. This guy seems to think that he can replace any actual action, or nice shots, with the shakiest of shaky cams, and cuts so fast that you can hardly keep up. His films move ridiculously fast, and not in a good way. When I say they move fast, I mean that, for example, we have a fight scene, the camera is already shaking so much that we don’t know who is hitting who, we think we see something but we aren’t sure, and in the midst of that, just to make it even more confusing, it’s cutting to different angles every half second. Watching a Paul Greengrass film is like watching a Toddler with ADHD play Call of Duty. That said, somehow Paul Greengrass always ends up getting great scripts. In the direction of any other competent human being, Green Zone would have been a good film. The script plays out like an espionage thriller, where it’s really America vs America, and showing us the dark side of the war. It’s refreshing to see an Iraq war film that is actually very anti-America. Even The Hurt Locker, and from what I’m hearing, American Sniper have some sort of “don’t fuck with ‘merica” propaganda message in them. Green Zone has none of that, it debates the reasons that the Iraq war happened, it puts the American army not just in a moral grey area, but it outright says that they were in the wrong about everything. I wish that they’d given this film to Kathryn Bigelow, who seems to have the opposite problem to Greengrass. She’s a damn good director, but I never like the scripts she’s given. Green Zone is one of those films that has so many good things about it, but it has an equal amount of bad things which makes it a completely neutral film. But Hollywood, stop giving Paul Greengrass good action movie scripts, and start giving those scripts to someone who doesn’t think you can substitute actual action for blurry laziness.