Fast Five

Over the last few summers, there have been too many absurd superhero and sci-fi fantasies that take themselves way too seriously and not enough real world heist and car chase movies that don’t in the slightest.

“Fast Five” will crash through that void at top speeds.

Long has the “Fast and the Furious” franchise been the butt of everyone’s jokes, not even being good enough to pass as trash. The street racing and high speed drifting on souped-up nitro engines got old fast (and furious), and while here there are still more slick cars than you can shake a dip stick at, Director Justin Lin has traded in much of that for a silly but riotous and well calculated heist thriller. Continue reading “Fast Five”

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Why has Wes Anderson not been making movies like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” his entire career? This charmingly stop motion animated kids movie is as perfectly in Anderson’s style as any film he’s ever made, and his colorful and peculiar quirks fit in beautifully with Roald Dahl’s lovingly crafted story. Continue reading “Fantastic Mr. Fox”

The Darjeeling Limited

I find it almost pointless to attempt to describe and review “The Darjeeling Limited” because the best way to describe any element of the film would be by saying it is a Wes Anderson movie. What does it look like? It looks like Wes Anderson shot it. Is it funny? That would depend on whether you thought Wes Anderson movies were funny. What’s it about? I have no idea.

Does it sound like I don’t like this movie? Film criticism is about describing the reaction you personally had as a viewer and about how you changed upon coming out of it. I can sadly report however that I had little to no reaction to it. The seemingly pointless irreverence of the film is well made, quirky and atmospheric, but it bounced off me as though there were nothing to gain from the experience.

It tells the story of three oddball brothers who come together for the first time in a year since their father’s funeral to ride the Darjeeling Limited train and explore India for an enlightening experience. Continue reading “The Darjeeling Limited”

Rapid Response: Rushmore

When Wes Anderson made “Rushmore,” his second film, he desperately tried to get it screened for the film critic Pauline Kael long after she had retired and was close to her death. I’m not sure if her reaction was good, but I imagine the reason he tried to screen it for her was because his film was simply so different. Being released in 1998, it’s not so much ahead of its time because it kicked off this style of film making for the next decade, but it feels very much like a 2000s movie.

How should Anderson have reacted if he had a feeling he was ushering in the next generation of the movies?

I’ve seen five of six of Anderson’s films, all of them in a peculiar order. “Rushmore” is the movie that put him on the map, along with the film’s co-screenwriter Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman (very young here) and would solidify the sorts of low-key older man roles Bill Murray would take until today.

But my first outing with the director was with “The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou,” a film that is equally odd and clearly identifiable in Anderson’s colorful yet distant visual style, but features Murray in the lead and seems more “classically” funny. Unlike “Rushmore,” it has what you would call “jokes.”

That’s not to say “Rushmore” isn’t funny; it’s hilarious. It’s to say “Rushmore’s” comedy is very much centered around attitude and absurd attention to detail in a quirky screenplay.

But in fact, all of Anderson’s films play and look in this fashion. That’s what makes him striking as a director. It is impossible to watch even a few moments of one of his movies and not recognize it as such.

The fans he established with “Rushmore” would say he fine-tuned his craft to perfection in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a film I’ll have to revisit but others have heralded as a cult masterpiece. Then he worked with Noah Baumbach (another disciple of his) on “Life Aquatic” and allowed that quirky attitude to meet situational comedy. And Anderson soon got to the point at which his “The Darjeeling Limited” was overstuffed in Anderson’s style that it felt like nothing more than a vehicle for Anderson’s quirks. Finally is “Fantastic Mr. Fox” what I feel is his finest film. That stop-motion animated picture felt so much like an Anderson movie without sacrificing any of its childlike charm that you wonder why he hadn’t made stop-motion animated films his entire career.

Watching “Rushmore,” it did become obvious that his movies have always felt like cartoons of sorts. “Rushmore” is hardly “about” anything, its characters fit into no reasonable human mold, its scenarios are largely absurd and overblown, yet the characters and the world in which they live are so richly “drawn” that it casts a spell nonetheless.

I’m glad I finally got around to seeing “Rushmore,” as I finally understand Anderson’s significance as a modern auteur of film.

The Conspirator

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” poses questions of American values in a time of uncertainty for our country. It conveniently even applies to the recent death of Osama bin Laden, pondering if an unprecedented villain is entitled to his human rights. But could the reiteration of those values appear any more trite than they are here?

Through some extensive and deep research by his screenwriter James Solomon, Redford re-enacts the time following President Lincoln’s assassination through the eyes of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a captain for the Union Army in the Civil War and now a lawyer working for the Southern senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). His job is to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a keeper of a boarding house charged with sheltering, aiding and conspiring in the murder of President Lincoln with John Wilkes Booth.

Aiken is nearly certain of her guilt, as is the rest of the country looking for answers and revenge, but Johnson convinces him that the Constitution entitles her to the same fair trial as anyone else, and the trial made up of a jury of Northern war officers and a biased Attorney General is not it.

This becomes more than clear as it does in almost all courtroom dramas. A judge is always bitter and unfair, the prosecutor is always ruthless and smarmy, the surprise witnesses are always unpredictable bombshells and the pitiful client will always sit silently and stoically until the climactic moment when an outburst in the courtroom threatens to place them in contempt.

I grew tired of “The Conspirator’s” drawn out portrayal of yet another courtroom drama with hints of conflicting American values not so subtly poking their heads into the proceedings. Continue reading “The Conspirator”

Helvetica

Graphic designers talk about typefaces the way I talk about film.

To them, a typeface has a rich history, it expresses feelings and emotions, and it symbolizes simplicity, cleanliness, modernization and even conformity.

So I learned in the documentary “Helvetica,” a film that definitively proves there is a documentary for anyone, about anything.

This is a film that explores the origins and the significance of the font Helvetica, the most ubiquitous font used in ads, signage and computers for the last 50 years. Continue reading “Helvetica”

Summer Movie Preview: 35 films worth talking about

“The Tree of Life,” “Hesher,” “Submarine,” “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “The Beaver” are amongst the most anticipated films of Summer 2011.

I didn’t really get much of an opportunity to throw in my two cents on movies in what turned out to be my last issue of the IDS WEEKEND on summer movies. But the typical problem I have with summer movie previews is the necessity to write at length about things I’m only speculating about (I have no inside sources as an amateur critic), and further to write about them objectively as though I’m genuinely interested in “Friends With Benefits.”

But this is my blog, so I’m going to ramble on about anything and everything I feel like. And I thought a creative way to do that would be to break up every movie I have thoughts about (not necessarily “interested” in) into rankings and subheads.

What this means is that this list is not extensive to every movie being released this summer. I will cover 35 of over 100 being released, so there are a bunch of films that I simply know nothing about at this stage. Either I haven’t seen trailers for them, they’re Sundance darlings without much more buzz than that or they’re movies that don’t fit in at any extreme on my spectrum, and be they good or bad, I’ll have to withhold my judgment.

Top 5 Movies I’m Genuinely Interested in this Summer

1. The Tree of Life – May 27

Terrence Malick has only made five films in his career stretching back to 1973 with his first film “Badlands.” And following what turned out to be a surprise contender for Best Movie of the Decade according to some critics with “The New World,” he’s been in production on “The Tree of Life,” which just got accepted into Cannes, for years. It stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and the newcomer Jessica Chastain in a family drama period piece blended with sci-fi elements, a first for Malick. Pitt plays a father to a boy back in the ’50s and Penn plays the grown up child in modern day. For anyone who’s seen “Days of Heaven,” which is one of the best looking films ever made, you can rest assured that this film will be visually stunning. It is a sure contender for Oscars at the end of the year and destined to live up to all expectations.

2. Hesher – May 13

“Hesher” is a stoner drama starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson in what looks like one of the oddest but grittiest and most awesome movies of the year. JGL plays the off-the-wall title character helping a young, straight arrow teen who is depressed with his family and life. Portman, who also produces the film, is sporting some thick rimmed glasses and I’m unsure of her role in the film just yet. I’m not familiar with the director, but it’s written by David Michod, who also wrote and directed the very good and gritty “Animal Kingdom.”

3. Submarine – June 3

A simple explanation would be it’s Wes Anderson in Britain, but this super quirky comedy starring British comedian Craig Roberts and Sally Hawkins looks lovely. It’s about a teen desperately trying to lose his virginity while dealing with a step-dad that has recently come into his life. Ben Stiller produces.

4. Crazy, Stupid, Love. – July 29

In the first post-“Office” role for Steve Carell, Carell plays a recently divorced man looking to womanize again. After his wife played by Julianne Moore leaves him, he meets Ryan Gosling as a lady-killer straight man to Carell’s comic foil. At the same time, Gosling also begins falling in love with Emma Stone (isn’t she a little young, 23, for the somewhat older Gosling, 30?). The concept sounds tired, but the trailer looks really good, and the cast also includes Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon, so there’s a lot to look forward to.

5. The Beaver – May 6

I still think this looks like “Mr. Hat: The Herbert Garrison Story,” but Mel Gibson actually went Method for this film, actually walking around with the beaver and talking to people (which is actually low on the list of crazy Mel Gibson stuff) to prepare for Jodie Foster’s film. This is her third feature but her first in 16 years, and the cast also includes Foster, Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”) and Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”). Continue reading “Summer Movie Preview: 35 films worth talking about”

Kick-Ass

I’m going to try reviewing “Kick-Ass” as a movie and not one that inspires and calls out to fanboys. I have no need to insult the audience that finds it amusing, nor do I have to criticize Director Matthew Vaughn or it’s original author Mark Millar for imagining it. I initially carried a lot of unnecessary baggage regarding the morality of the film, but morals are the least of the film’s problems.

Admittedly, I did find it uncomfortable to see a preteen girl utter lines of loving affection to her father with the same inflection of glowing innocence as a collection of four-letter words before she proceeded to chop off legs, nail baddies in the head and get pummeled to a bloody pulp by a middle-aged man.

But, I didn’t enjoy these moments that others find so cathartic and hilarious not because I’m a prude, but because a majority of the scenes are strictly serious, played for drama and rooted in a mindset of reality. This is not comic violence; it’s just violence. Continue reading “Kick-Ass”

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s third film “Up in the Air,” like “Juno” before it, is a socially relevant, timely masterpiece that speaks and relates to adults everywhere with its intelligence and charm.

Up in the Air PosterSociety has become streamlined. The best and brightest function like clockwork, the most tech savvy and connected people operate with speed and efficiency, and the only people with anything meaningful or important to say have done away with all the excess waste in their lives and need not say anything at all. Jason Reitman is one of the few left to not function this way, and he still has a great story to tell.

Reitman’s third film “Up in the Air,” like “Juno” before it, is a socially relevant, timely masterpiece that speaks and relates to adults everywhere with its intelligence and charm.

The film’s hero is Ryan Bingham, as portrayed in one of his best performances by George Clooney. Bingham’s job is to fire people for a living, and he is the best at what he does because he has a way with words, creates no attachments and has micro managed society to the point that he understands the way people think and act. To attain this level of success, Bingham has become a pioneer of the air, attaining more frequent flyer miles than almost any person, and his universally connected status ensures that he can spend all his time without ever being grounded in one place.

It’s his way of life, and his extremely methodized system keeps the business world turning as the economic downturn threatens jobs across the country. In addition to some actors like Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, Reitman did his research and cast some genuine, recently terminated people for Clooney to fire. These moments and performances are remarkably truthful in their bleakness and emotion. For these scenes alone, Reitman and “Up in the Air” will become a landmark for the ways in which humans face an ever growing problem.

And while the economic theme of the film serves as a mighty overtone, I have not even begun to discuss the psychological depth Reitman’s screenplay has. The film provides Ryan Bingham with two reincarnations of himself. “Just think of me as yourself with a vagina,” says Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a middle-age pioneer of the air that enjoys comparing car rental plans with Bingham and gets turned on by his American Airlines Concierge Membership Card.

Alex has such a warm demeanor about her character. She serves such a nice role in modeling and embodying the similarities of Bingham to paint him as so much more than a character type. As Alex, Farmiga syncs up perfectly with Bingham’s rapid fire dialogue and witty persona, and it gives Farmiga the first opportunity to really do comedy. Who would have guessed her more solemn, dramatic background could honestly allow her to go head to head with George Clooney, one of the most charming men on the face of the Earth? The two have an excellent chemistry.

Then there is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot straight from Cornell hoping to revolutionize the art of firing people, modeling Bingham 20 years ago. Natalie wants to begin firing people through video chat, grounding all the people in the air and saving a fortune on travel fees. Not only will this drastically change Bingham’s life, he feels it is a harsh thing to do to a person in such a tough situation.

But just as much as Natalie will grow under Bingham’s wing, her common dreams of building a relationship and a home life will make Bingham rethink his drifter lifestyle.

The discussion of this topic gives “Up in the Air” its weight. Through the similar personalities and yet polar ideas of both Natalie and Bingham, the film finds a note of great comedy as the two actors let loose their argumentative chops. But it also strikes some dramatic chords in the way the discussion makes us think.

Bingham makes a speech several times throughout the film about living life with an empty backpack. When we jam all the possessions, institutions and even people into our lives, they slow us down like a heavy backpack. Bingham and his lifestyle are idealized throughout the film. We root for the success of his freedom. And although such freedom is unrealistic and ultimately a lonely way of living life, the film does not attempt to completely change Bingham through melodrama and the clichés of love and friendship.

What I got from the film is that the institutions, the traditions and the little things in life, they can be meaningless and are a waste. The people, although they offer the most burdens of all, are the only things worth carrying. To say people and connections are the most significant things a person needs is fairly generic, and “Up in the Air” even challenges that theory. But it also seems to say, “If your backpack is empty, what’s the use in carrying one?”

These were the things I thought about during “Up in the Air,” which is a beautifully cinematic experience, a mature comedic affair and an emotional ordeal. Reitman is one of today’s best directors at getting people thinking. Even his comedy, as “Up in the Air” is rich and funny, is material suited for intelligent people as it has a vein of truth and thought to it.

Of all of Reitman’s leads, Clooney is perhaps the best at making his audience ask questions of his character and performance. Clooney is wonderful here, displaying more charm and conversational physique than ever. But his Ryan Bingham is something Clooney is often not: vulnerable. There is more pain to be sensed here than when he stood in front of his car exploding in “Michael Clayton.”

And the reason for Clooney’s frailty and nakedness is in Ryan Bingham’s bleak future. “Up in the Air’s” ending is a difficult read, but I view it as a rebirth. A rebirth is the service Bingham is offering to all whom he fires. And through his thought provoking screenplay, Reitman is doing the same for his audience.

4 stars

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Anyone who knows me knows I had severe doubts about “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” before going in, and despite my enjoyment of the first film, this one has Michael Bay to thank for that. But I checked my bias at the door and yet my first suspicion this would be a bad film was the Paramount logo. Sound effects punctuated every star that flew by (all 22), and I asked, “Is this really necessary?”

That’s the question I was asking throughout the whole movie. How much longer does this fight scene between hundreds of CGI creations have to drag on for? And how many more of them do we need? How many back stories and Macguffins do we need to understand that an evil alien race wants to destroy Earth purely for revenge (which, since it’s in the title, is fairly obvious already)? Why must it pander every stereotype, cliché and sex joke in the book before it thinks we’re entertained? Continue reading “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”