Saturday, November 29, 2008

Four underrated movies I just had to write about

I think the title explains this post pretty accurately.

In Good Company (2004)
The thing I like about this film is that it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It knows it’s a light drama with a likable cast, but it actually gives them some interesting and realistic situations to handle. I also enjoy that, even though it’s PG-13 (for “some sexual content and drug references”) it’s a very clean film, one you could watch with a group of teens and later discuss how characters handled situations and how people treated each other. Basically it’s the moral opposite of American Pie, which was half directed by In Good Company's Paul Weitz.
Denis Quaid, Topher Grace and Scarlet Johansson work well together here. Quaid is Johansson’s father, who’s new boss is the young Topher Grace who starts getting romantically involved with Quiad’s daughter. The situations never get melodramatic or over the top, and by the end you can sympathize with each character. A nice change of pace from the barrage of lame crude comedies we see all the time.

The Final Cut (2004)
On the surface, this is a typical dystopian future sci-fi thriller with your basic “is technology too powerful?” theme. The Final Cut, however, is elevated above your average dystopian future sci-fi thriller due to the interesting look and its noir-ish atmosphere. When I say interesting look, I’m referring mostly to the fact that the film looks as though it were taking place today, save for a few leaps in technology, mainly the “Zoe” memory chip. This microchip is placed in your brain to record your memories, which allows others to view an edited version to remember you by after you have passed away. Robin Williams plays an editor, aka “cutter”, of diseased individuals’ memories who gets wrapped up in a plot that I won’t reveal here. Half the fun of The Final Cut's plot is that it isn’t particularly new or revolutionary, but it has interesting twists and turns as well as some very well thought out observations on the powers of technology.

Down in the Valley (2006)

This, in my opinion, is the most underrated film on this little list, such as it is. Down in the Valley carries some of the feeling of boredom and regret found in films such as The Last Picture Show while having a character that is inspired by Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. In fact, Edward Norton, as the seemingly always calm and together Harlan, has a scene straight out of Taxi Driver where he talks to an imaginary foe while staring himself down in a mirror, playing with his guns. Norton and Evan Rachel Wood (as Tobe) are excellent together as two troubled young people who feel trapped by high powers (Tobe by her father and Harlan by society). Tobe’s father, Wade (David Morse), is an untrusting, controlling, harsh man who doesn’t enjoy having his power over his children questioned by Harlan, even when Harlan calmly and politely introduces himself to him and his rather meek son Lonnie (Rory Culkin). It becomes obvious Tobe and Lonnie could use a better father figure in their life, but when Harlan and Tobe’s relationship starts to end it becomes clear that Harlan may not be as reliable a male role model as he first appeared.
Some have been quick to judge Down in the Valley as a straight-up rip-off of Taxi Driver, but I think that’s a bit of a harsh accusation. I think it’s obvious writer/director David Jacobson has seen Taxi Driver and was heavily inspired by it, but instead of saying Down in the Valley is a rip-off, I would say it takes some of the basic ideas and elements of Taxi Driver and reworks them in a different direction and to a different degree.

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Why Lucky Number Slevin isn’t more well known is beyond me. With a cast including Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hartnett and Lucy Lui you’d think more people would have seen it. On top of a star-studded cast, this film has more style than any film Guy Richie has ever made with dialog Tarantino fans would eat up and twists reminiscent of The Usual Suspects. What I love about Lucky Number Slevin most is probably the style. Sure the actors are good, the dialog is fun and the plot is clever and engaging (albeit not quite as air-tight as that Usual Suspects reference might lead you to believe), but this films has so much style it almost wouldn’t matter if the plot turned out to suck. Slevin is filled with colors, hit men, mob bosses, music and insanely cool wallpaper (the kind you would probably never see anywhere outside a film like this), just to name a few things. If you think Guy Richie is overrated (which he is) and want to see something really slick and entertaining, check this film out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some Things I Love Right Now

Just thought I'd post a few things from/involving film that right now, at this moment, I can't help but love:

  • This poster from Paprika. Watched this film yesterday and really enjoyed it, but I absolutely love the poster. I've seen less anime than I care to admit, but of the five or six films I have seen, this one is possibly my favorite. Maybe because, compared to other films I've seen, it's very serious or maybe because it talks about how dreams are like films. Still, sometimes a poster can perfectly capture something (Essence? Spirit? Style? Mood?) present in a film and you can't help but wish the poster was the film.

  • Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton. I just finished watching this and cannot stop thinking of her great performance. She shows us a woman who is very powerful but very nervious. She gets nervious preparing for a television interview, but only has to think for a moment when deciding whether or not to kill a man.

  • The way some films weave references and pay homage to other films, thereby connecting themselves to the worlds and mythology of those films. For example: in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 Uma Thurman's The Bride travels to Japan in order to get a sword made by Hanzô Hattori, which in a strange way ties Tarantino's film to those other Hattori Hanzô films, or at least the TV series Sonny Chiba starred in. Tarantino has countless references to other films, and filmmakers like Kevin Smith sometimes make their films unofficial sequels to one another (Smith's View Askewniverse ties many of his films together through characters, events and locations), but filmmakers reference other filmmakers' work all the time, and I can't get enough of it. It's as if all these films are taking place in the same bizzare, wonderful universe.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Some movie reviews

here are a few reviews for films I've written on my Flixster profile on my Facebook account (stars rated out of 5):

The Baxter (2005) ****
I rented this for three reasons: I thought the premise of a film about the "wrong guy" who gets left at the alter was great, I think Elizabeth Banks is beautiful, and after watching Wet Hot American Summer I wanted to see if any of Michael Showalter's other films were as funny. I love this film. Michael Showalter is great at playing a shy, girly-man. There are so many great jokes poking fun at traditional romantic comedy clichés, and yet the film still manages to have a heart and keep you rooting for Showalter's "Baxter". It's also great fun to see other cast members from Wet Hot American Summer in supporting performances or bit parts. I loved (LOVED) the little ending with Paul Rudd. having never seen Michelle Williams in such a large role, I was very impressed with her, she was the perfect uncomfortably shy fit for Showalter. My only complaint, which isn't reeally a complaint, is that oftentimes "Baxters" in films are jerks, not the nice-but-shy guys Showalter seems to insinuate. But to his credit there are films with nice-guy Baxters, and I suppose if Showalter were to play a prick here his character wouldn't be as relatable and the film would feel too cold-hearted. Overall, if you love subtle humor that plays against normal genre clichés, or if you just want to watch an uncommonly good and sweet film, check out The Baxter.

The Road to Wellville (1994) *1/2
Long and unfunny. I enjoyed John Cusack, although he has an unimportant part here, and Bridget Fonda is beautiful, but other than that the cast is either uninteresting or overacts terribly. The production values are relatively impressive, but the story is split between three uninteresting stories that don't really coherently connect. The first 30 minutes are interesting, but after an hour I was ready for it to end. What exactly is this supposed to be parodying? Are we supposed to laugh at how silly the "health craze" was? You could say the strange and useless remedies and characters featured here are an allegory for our society today, but I felt Parker was more preoccupied with showing silly people do silly things than focusing on a meaning.

Syriana (2005) **
Decided to give it a second chance, but only found it more agonizingly self-absorbed and preachy. It's not that I disagree with all of the (obviously) liberal views presented here, but they are just so painfully obvious and unnecessarily exaggerated. Also, do we really need a film to tell us not everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist, that many terrorist organizations draw young people in because they offer assurances that other organizations don't, that government is corrupt, and the current war is very much over oil? Well, some people might not know that, but then again, those people probably get excited over the latest "Scary" or "Epic" spoof movie. The only aspect of this film worth any real praise is Clooney's performance. Although it may not have been as Oscar worthy as some of his others, he is the only character that we actually feel is real and not simply a stereotype. Clooney makes Bob a sad, lonely figure who has a need to know what is happening and why. I only wish I new what was happening, since Gaghan seems to pile on story after story while "interconnecting" them in ways only slightly more meaningful than those in Paul Haggis' overrated "Crash". Ultimately, Syriana not only fails as a thriller, (because it is too confusing and complex to have a tight ending or focus) or a drama (some of the situations these characters are in seem artificial and a few of the actors are not to the task of creating meaningful and relatable characters), but also as a message film because you really won't find anything in this film about Middle Eastern culture or the oil business that you either didn't already know and have opinions about. No doubt the filmmakers had good intentions when making the film, but ultimately it feels over-elaborate, showy and pretentious.

Teeth (2007) ***1/2
The fact that this is a film about a girl with "vagina dentata" might make it seem really crass and disgusting, and while it is disgusting, it's also a really smart and unique look at teenage sexuality and a young girl coming to terms with her own body. It's also about reversing the roles in violent sexual situations. Here the girl has the ultimate power over the male, and when one boy tries to date-rape Dawn, he pays the price. Yet it's also a commentary on how low society seems to view women and how that influences how men view women and how women view themselves. This isn't necessarily a great film, and I'm sort of in between giving three-and-a-half or four stars, but it's really entertaining and really interesting.

Cape Fear (1991) ***1/2
An excellent thriller from Scorsese that manages to update on the original while still feeling fresh. De Niro is delightfully menacing as Max Cady, and Nolte, Lange and Lewis are all convincing as the family he stalks. While both this version and the original 1962 one take psychological approaches to scare us and the family, this one adds a new level of fear by creating tension within the Bowden family and by making Cady a very charismatic villain who manages to separate the family from each other even more. There are a few drawbacks though, and they are the reason I can't give this film four stars. For one thing, the film is simply too long. usually I view the length of the film as a decision made by the director and editor for both stylistic and storytelling purposes, but the fact is this story could have been told better if 15-20 minutes had been cut out. Also, towards the end the film falls prey to a few typical clichés: a character conveniently has a tape recorder hidden on him, a character manages to kill someone and disguise himself in a rather preposterous scene, and Cady's way of following the Bowden's to Cape Fear is a bit far-fetched. Other than those few complaints, this is a first-rate thriller that delves deeper into the characters than most films.

First Post November 2, 2008

Okay, my first post on a blog ten people might read if I'm lucky!