Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September's Film Round-Up

Golly, I know these are late, but think of it this way: Compared to the DVD releases dates, these reviews are breaking news! The reviews are reprinted with permission of ICON (thanks, Trina).

Pineapple Express (Dir. David Gordon Green). Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez. After an aimless, pot-loving process server (Rogen) witnesses a murder, he and his amiable, space-cadet drug dealer (Franco) are forced to go on the run. After starring and co-writing 2007's biggest comedies, Knocked Up and Superbad, respectively, Rogen lighting his farts on screen would make money, and this is pretty close. The movie is light and loose, an attitude that grows old pretty quickly. Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg's comedic riffing goes on way too long with no real payoff, and there's very little reason to care about Franco and Rogen's characters, two one-dimensional slackers who we're supposed to like because they have to take action. The movie desperately wants to be the Generation Y version of The Big Lebowski, but the writers and director Green (All the Real Girls, perhaps the last person you want to direct a movie like this) seem loath to make an effort. In that respect, they've recreated the stoner experience a little too well. R

Sukiyaki Western Django (Dir: Takashi Miike). Starring: Hideaki Ito, Koichi Sato, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura, Teruyuki Kagawa, Kaori Momoi, Quentin Tarantino. A favorite of directors such as Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Tarantino, Miike's take on the spaghetti Western has a lone unnamed gunfighter (Ito) arriving at a small Nevada town and coming between two warring factions, the Genji and the Heike, with calamitous results. The story is a little choppy and the actors' command of English isn't the best (they had a month of intensive language training), but that takes a backseat to Miike's visual mastery. For those tired of quick cuts and massive FX-laden explosives, Miike is a savior. The man knows how to use violence to evoke humor and pathos, and that ability, along with the fun he has showing it off, is infectious but not for the squeamish. Pray that Jerry Bruckheimer doesn’t give him a billion dollars to do something stupid. Tarantino, appearing early on and later in heavy make-up, plays an old gunfighter with a surprising connection to one of the townsfolk. R

Tropic Thunder (Dir: Ben Stiller). Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson. Desperately behind on a big-budget Vietnam War epic and hoping for a creative jump start, a frazzled director (Coogan), sends his cast (featuring clueless stars Stiller, Black, and Downey Jr.) into hostile jungle territory for filming. The exercise becomes all too real when a band of real-life bad guys mistakes the pampered stars for actual soldiers. This satire of Hollywood culture is as broad as a multiplex screen, with director Stiller pounding his points home. But when the movie hits the mark, such as Downey Jr. character's ridiculous method acting or describing the perils of an actor going "full retard" for Oscar votes--the movie is a scream. Plus, Stiller, Black, and especially Downey Jr. (playing an Australian actor playing an African American solider), are plenty funny. Those who have procaimed Tropic Thunder to the be the year's funniest movie are somewhat off, but it is a contender. Believe it or not, Judd Apatow is not involved in the movie. R

Traitor (Dir: Jeffrey Nachmanoff). Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Neal McDonough, Aly Khan, Said Taghmaoui, Archie Panjabi. Cheadle, who produced, stars as Samir Horn, a demolition expert who joins a group of well-connected Muslim extremists in planning bombings worldwide. Meanwhile, two dogged FBI agents (Pearce and McDonough) are hot on Horn's trail, although he's really working deep cover for the CIA as he gets closer to orchestrating an unthinkable terrorist act. Got all that? Don't bother. Endless and needlessly complex, Traitor is so bogged down by Horn's international traveling and whispered details, that it never actually decides on what it wants to be--a political thriller, a well-traveled version of The Fugitive, or a commentary on religious identity in America. All it is, is boring and offensive, as the movie simply uses post 9/11/01 issues and paranoia as a set-up for a flashy, empty spy movie with a ridiculous ending. The actors involved here, and there are some good ones, deserve better than this. So do audiences. PG-13

Review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

So, Scarlett Johansson got married over the weekend to Ryan Reynolds. No!!!! Hey, do you know she's also an actress, and a pretty good one. The following review appeared in the September issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)

Throbbing with energy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the movie that should launch Woody Allen back into relevance after 10 years of making inferior movies from his legendary ones. Example: Crimes and Misdemeanors - laughs + attractive cast + turgid pace = Match Point. Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like the legendary writer/director has been revived, that he's finally become tired of remixing his greatest hits. Thank God.

Arriving in Barcelona for a two-month summer stay, twentysomething friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) have different agendas. Vicky is working on a graduate degree in some nonsense Spanish-influenced subject. Practical and organized, she's biding her time studying until she marries the bland and successful Doug (Chris Messina). Sexy and free-spirited, Cristina has no real plan except to enjoy the free accommodations from Vicky's friends (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn).

The girls' plans change when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a sexy and tortured painter, who invites the two for a weekend of sightseeing and lovemaking in Oviedo. "This is the chance for something special," is his sales pitch. Cristina is hooked while Vicky is repulsed. But concerned for her friend's safety, Vicky makes the trip as well. Cristina is on the verge of passionate lovemaking with Juan Antonio ("I'll go to your room," she says, "but you have to seduce me.") when she becomes ill, allowing Vicky and the amorous painter to spend the next day together.

As day turns into night, Vicky's pragmatism fades, and she sleeps with Juan Antonio, the first of many chaotic events. Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio, while Vicky still pines for him, her feelings becoming stronger as marriage-minded Doug arrives in Barcelona in all his khaki and tucked shirt boredom. Cristina, meanwhile, flourishes with Juan Antonio and his bohemian lifestyle, until the arrival of his creative, sultry, and suicidal ex-wife, Maria Elena (a hilariously unhinged Penélope Cruz), changes everything.

The big difference with Vicky Cristina Barcelona compared to Allen's other films, aside from the international cast, is its sensuality. The four main characters are guided, for better or for worse, by sex. Vicky's tryst with Juan Antonio shakes her worldview, while Cristina uses lovemaking as a way of maturity and self-discovery. For Juan Antonio, he oozes sexual confidence out of his pores, while Maria Elena uses it as a weapon over her ex-husband and his current paramour. The acting here is so ripe and vibrant, especially from Cruz and Bardem, that it never feels like Allen is commenting on the limits of sexual desire. The characters come to those realizations themselves. The philosophy-rich ways of Annie Hall and Manhattan never surface. And with Johansson--after two prior films, finally being used to her full smoky, charismatic potential by Allen--and Cruz around, who needs philosophy?

Allen can no longer effectively portray the everyday neuroses of relationships, or offer his interpretation of how those crazy kids do it. (His head might explode if he toured the dating web sites or talked to a single, sexually active 25-year-old.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona shows that he can have fun while imparting bigger lessons than how to date someone from the Lower East Side. Being young and impetuous in a sexy, foreign city can be fun, but it can also expose you to a lot of hard truths. When Vicky and Cristina return to New York, they have life experience, but not the kind they envisioned. It's a poetic finale in a terrific movie that introduces Allen in a new role to a younger generation of moviegoers: the sage grandfather of American cinema. Let's hope he doesn't feel the need to rehash the good old days.

Paul Newman

Well, it's been a while hasn't it-over a month since the last post. Part of it has been adjusting to a new schedule. Basically, I'm freelancing full-time while looking for a suitable job, and it's taken me some time to get used to budgeting my time properly. (I've also had several assignments.) The blog, unfortunately, got lost in the shuffle. Until now.

You've probably heard by now, but Paul Newman died last weekend. I am as sad as any movie fan, as he was the matinee idol who displayed staggering depth along with consistency. There was no Al Pacino "Foghorn Leghorn" phase or Robert De Niro "where's my paycheck" era. He delivered great performances--without compromise--for some 60 years.

I think the one reason why I loved Paul Newman so much is that he had a sense of humor about himself. Witness his voice cameo on "The Simpsons," where Homer, angry at Marge's crush on a paper towel pitchman, roams the groceries for a fellow crush. Homer's eyes eye a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing, and Newman springs to life.

"Homer, I'll tell you what I told Redford: It's not going to happen."

Genius. Also, memorable was his appearance on Letterman's first show on CBS. After a big introduction, Newman stands up in the crowd, and greets Dave with, "Where the hell are the singing cats?' a reference to then-popular Broadway show. Newman, looking like the cool uncle I never had, then heads for the exit.

We'll miss you, Hud. Rest in peace.