In the documentary King of Kong video game rapscallion Billy Mitchell states, “When you want your name written into history you have to pay the price.” Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) pays the price in Whiplash to become the best jazz player in the world, but it’s the audience that reaps the rewards. Simply put, Whiplash is a hell of an experience.
Neiman bleeds for his art, but regardless, his talent falls far below the expectations of his incredibly abusive instructor Terence Fletcher, played masterfully by J. K. Simmons. Let us thank the Hollywood gods for whoever decided to cast Simmons. Fletcher’s methods are despicable, his ego is overblown, and yet his motivations and moments of vulnerability flesh him out as a real person who, in his own twisted way, cares. Simmons may have earned himself an Oscar, and at this pace, it won’t be long until the young Teller wins one of his own.
The antagonistic buildup between Fletcher and Neiman is so potent that Whiplash can be forgiven for slowing down a bit too much after an incredible midpoint climax. But the cymbals crash once more for a second, somehow superior climax that’s more cathartic than perhaps any film climax of the past decade. The blood Neiman sheds stains more than just his drum kit; it spills on the audience and calls into question the cost of art.
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux
Release Date: May 7, 2010 (USA)
Iron Man 2 should have been great. Robert Downey Jr. has proven he's the perfect actor to play charismatic billionaire Tony Stark, and with the predictable origin story out of the way, the sequel was free to move forward in any number of directions. So what went wrong? Iron Man 2 does present a number of new changes and challenges for Stark, but they are jumbled together to create the kind of story you can find in an average (not extraordinary) comic book. The lull that sets in during the middle of the movie could be explained as a dark period for Stark, but this is a Marvel movie; any kind of seriousness is undercut by inherent corniness. Humor does have a place in the Iron Man franchise, with the best comedic moments coming from RDJ's dialogue as the always witty Stark. It's unfortunate that Sam Rockwell's character, Justin Hammer, shoulders much of the comedic weight in Iron Man 2. One-liners just don't have the same impact coming from a Tony Stark-lite.
There are more shortcomings that can be singled out (including the Black Widow), but lets just sum it up. Iron Man's adventures aren't as fun the second time around, and the sequel's complexities don't amount to depth. Since the first Iron Man has been the most promising Marvel movie to date, the mediocrity of Iron Man 2 makes me at least a little less excited for the Avengers movie that Marvel loves to tease us with. At least there is one thing that Iron Man 2 gets very right - War Machine looks like a complete bad ass.
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Gene Roddenberry (television series Star Trek)
Release Date: May 8, 2009 (USA)
It may sound impossible, but J.J. Abrams has made the Star Trek franchise cool. Those who have never seen a Star Trek film or TV episode have nothing to fear with Abrams' latest installment of the science fiction series - this re-imagining welcomes new viewers while still providing classic references for longtime Trekkies (live long and prosper, my friends). Fans of previous Star Trek films, Star Wars, Independence Day, and action/adventure movies in general should all see Star Trek in theaters, because it is quite the summer blockbuster.
As far as space operas go, Star Trek is superb. Chris Pine is instantly likable as the charismatic and stubborn leader James T. Kirk, with Zachary Quinto providing a great foil to the lead character as the logical yet impassioned Spock. Though Kirk and Spock are the focal points of the narrative, the supporting characters are given plenty of opportunities to shine, largely due to the strength and wit of the dialogue. Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban) is comically cynical, Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) is surprisingly proficient in battle, and Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg) is a regular scene stealer. It's always a good sign in any story when it's difficult to decide on a favorite character.
The success of Star Trek begins with the serendipitous teaming of the main characters and continues with their interactions. The adventure is fast paced and interesting, though there's always time for a bit of humor and some interdepartmental clashing. Eric Bana is almost unrecognizable as the villain Nero, who, unfortunately, is not as compelling as those he seeks to destroy. His presence is enough to propel the story forward, but Nero lacks the depth of Kirk or Spock. It's an acceptable trade off, because Star Trek is more about the USS Enterprise crew than the looming enemy. Future installments should provide more engrossing villainy.
Perhaps the most important theme of Star Trek is unity through teamwork. The next time you watch the movie, count how many times someone is saved by an ally. There is always a sense of the greatness that can be achieved when the right crew comes together to accomplish a difficult goal, even (or especially) when death seems a certainty. You don't want to miss out on this opportunity to cheer for the good guys.
If any Trekkies get laid tonight, it's because of Chris Pine in Star Trek.
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse
Release Date: March 6, 2009 (USA)
How do you create a film adaptation of the classic graphic novel Watchmen? If you are director Zack Snyder, you do it with an abbreviated storyline, stylistic slow-motion, a questionable soundtrack, and enough over-the-top action and gore to make the Spartans proud.
The graphic novel Watchmen is undeniably complex. Boiling down its heavy insides (filled with motifs, flashbacks, philosophical musings, etc.) into a single, coherent film is impossible. Compromises must be made, and the end result is a disappointment for longtime fans and an unsteady ride for those who have never heard of Rorschach and company. No doubt Snyder had the best of intentions when he took on the task of adapting Watchmen, but it was a fool's errand. The film has a promising start, showing reverence for the original comic panels, but it soon crumbles under its own weight. It's not long before key events from the novel begin to feel rushed in an attempt to reach a conclusion that lacks a strong and lasting impact.
No one can blame Snyder for having trouble condensing Watchmen for the big screen, but some of his directorial decisions undercut the source material in frustrating ways. Rather than adapting his direction to fit the novel, he sticks with what worked for his blockbuster hit 300. The film seems more geared toward the next brutal combat scene than the unfolding plot or deepening characterization. There are realistic and disturbing traits attributed to the Watchmen (see: the Comedian), but these adult characters are made foolish by cornball action befitting Batman & Robin. Sure, Snyder tosses in buckets of blood to secure an adult rating, but watching characters fly to and fro during action scenes separates the film from its mature themes and links it to every other cornball comic book movie that's been made. Subtlety did not survive the transition from novel to screen.
Though it's easy to gripe about the film's drawbacks, it's not difficult to imagine how much of a disaster Watchmen could have been. The film could have been helmed by a director who cared nothing for the graphic novel (who in turn didn't try to provide a visual experience for longtime fans), and Arnold Schwarzenegger could have been playing Dr. Manhattan - think about that second possibility for a moment. There is some pleasure to be taken away from Watchmen, such as Jeffrey Dean Morgan's exceptional performance as the Comedian, but it will most likely be remembered as an above-average comic book movie. Considering it stems from such a brilliant literary work, the overall shortcoming of Watchmen certainly is a disappointment.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Release Date: July 18, 2008 (USA)
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
- Alfred Pennyworth’s analysis of The Joker
Batman Begins introduced us to Gotham City as a realistic metropolis sick with corruption, and The Dark Knight finds the city aflame. Gotham City has never been this dark outside the pages of a graphic novel. There is a certain mood created and maintained by this film; it’s one comparable to being set in a guillotine, waiting for the unseen blade to fall. It’s a wonderful, exhilarating tension to experience, and it is where we are immersed for over two hours.
The Dark Knight is character driven, and control is a central theme. Factions battle for control of Gotham City, which beats with a pulse, and heroes struggle to maintain control of their fragile morality. This is the antithesis of an empty summer action flick. Now, I realize some would prefer to separate The Dark Knight from other comic book movies (Batman Begins not included) due to its distinct quality, but I argue otherwise. The perfectly dismal setting, tested and tragic heroes, careful attention to in-universe mythos – these are the qualities found in the best graphic novels. While watching the film I felt as if I was seeing static panels animated to life. After a climax and resolution I could feel the next chapter beginning. The Dark Knight is a blending of two forms of art: cinema and the graphic novel.
In reality we hope our heroes may remain at ease, but in this kind of fiction, we realize a hero is only as good as his villain. In The Dark Knight, The Joker is an adversary who elevates his counterpart to the highest level. You’ve no doubt heard the gushing praise of Heath Ledger’s performance as Batman’s nemesis, but allow me to focus in on one aspect that makes Ledger’s Joker so engaging: he is damn funny. Even when he’s sharpening the blade, we’re laughing along, albeit sometimes nervously. The Joker is charismatic, brutal, likable, and terrifying. One moment we are gleefully entertained by his antics, and the next we’re squirming away from the sadistic madman we’ve unwittingly built a connection with. The Joker is a captivating sight to behold. As long as he is on-screen, the word “dull” does not apply.
For all its admirable accomplishments, The Dark Knight is not perfect. Christian Bale’s voice as Batman is sometimes unintentionally comical. A few storyline threads may be cut a bit rough. But these minor issues do not mar this fantastic representation of Gotham City and its key inhabitants. After working to unfold the layers of this film, there’s only one possible conclusion: the bar for comic book movies has been raised, and it may not be reached again for years. The Dark Knight stands alone.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Jim Capobianco
Release Date: June 27, 2008 (USA)
Oh please say to me
You’ll let me be your man
And please say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
Oh let me hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
-The Beatles, "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
Animated films are often mediocre experiences parents are forced to meander through while their children cheer for the cute but hollow characters on-screen. But with Pixar films, parents (and the rest of us) have something to look forward to. Pixar dominates the animated film market, and for good reason: their award-winning movies are delightful experiences for the young and the old alike. Pixar has focused on toys, monsters, and superheroes, and will their latest film WALL-E, one little robot makes a journey into the final frontier.
The title character of WALL-E is the most lovable little trash compactor in the history of film. Though he doesn’t speak much, he is quite polite and a sure bet to win over audiences and become a Pixar favorite for generations to come. Though there are secondary characters present, our attention is always tuned to WALL-E, whether we’re smiling at his human gestures or worried for the little guy’s well being. With this movie Pixar doesn’t depend as much on a large cast (see: Finding Nemo) and instead narrows its scope on key characters. At its core, WALL-E is essentially a love story. The heroine is EVE, a much more advanced robot than WALL-E who puts business before pleasure. It’s likely kids won’t think twice about it, but EVE is a powerful “female” character, which leads to more satisfying characterization and plot development as the film progresses. You can forget the cliché romantic comedies plaguing the theaters every week, because WALL-E develops a chivalrous and loving relationship viewers can actually invest care in. But there’s no question about it – WALL-E is the character people are going to remember most fondly once the credits begin rolling; he really is one of Pixar’s best creations.
WALL-E calls on a number of sources – modern and classic romantic comedies, Short Circuit, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even An Inconvenient Truth and Super Size Me – and as odd as these references look placed alongside each other, their elements work in this fiction. This is another knockout by Pixar. WALL-E is going to win awards, most likely taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and it is going to knock off some of Pixar’s other films as a personal fan favorite for many viewers. Watch WALL-E and become enamored. Besides, any movie that could create fondness for a cockroach is something to behold.
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Zak Penn
Release Date: June 13, 2008 (USA)
Riding the wave of success created by Iron Man, Marvel has just released their second summer superhero movie of 2008, The Incredible Hulk. After the disaster known as Hulk from 2003, Marvel went back to the drawing board for this “sequel,” overhauling the franchise and planning for better results the second time around. Thankfully for the comic book faithful, or anyone looking for a fun popcorn flick, The Incredible Hulk is far superior to its predecessor.
Perhaps the most notable change from the first Hulk film is the casting of Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner, the scientist who transforms into the Hulk. It’s no secret that Norton is a talented and respected A-lister in Hollywood, and he brings sincerity to his role as a hunted man only looking for a way out. Physically, his slight build and unassuming features fit the comic book image of Banner, but if there's one aspect of the character that's missing on-screen, it’s Banner’s extreme intellect. Bruce Banner is a certifiable genius, and it would have been ideal to have some glimpses of that character feature; think of technological genius Tony Stark in Iron Man casually assembling a hotrod or running through the process of building a high-tech suit of armor and you’ll understand what I'm referring to. One aspect of Banner's mind that's surprising to find are the Hulk flashbacks the character receives soon after his transformations; from the beginning we realize the man wants to rid himself of the monster inside, but fearful flashbacks, yet another consequence, give a depth to Banner that help us sympathize with him further.
Liv Tyler plays Banner’s close friend and romantic interest Betty Ross. Though Tyler does fit the mold of a comic book heroine, her interactions with Norton are not so engaging. I’m not sure whether to point the finger at the writers or the actress, but I doubt most people are going to highly value the love story found here. William Hurt as General Thunderbolt Ross fits the look and attitude of his comic book counterpart, but the character is as flat as I remember him in the comic book – here’s another virile military leader who doesn’t realize he’s being a fool until well after the audience has already jumped to the same conclusion. Like I said, I like the casting of Norton as the Hulk, but it’s Tim Roth I was looking forward to watching. Roth has been a personal favorite of mine since first finding him in Reservoir Dogs, and his role as agent Emil Blonsky is one of the strongest aspects of The Incredible Hulk. Looking back, I’d much rather have seen more Banner/Blonsky interactions than Banner/Betty.
Continuing the casting commentary, the big green star of the movie looks considerably different than audiences remember him on-screen. He’s smaller in frame than in Hulk (though still massive compared to humans), and he is given more realistic and detailed physical features; this time around he doesn’t look as much a cartoon set against real-life backgrounds. He’s also more vulnerable to physical harm, which is a smart way to curb the blandness that an unstoppable hero comes along with. If only Hulk didn’t maintain those hyper-colored green eyes. Yes Marvel, we realize green is his color – no need to beat us over the heads with it.
As far as the story, I’ve covered most of what works and what doesn’t. If you’ve seen the trailer (or, of course, the movie) you already know what to expect; there aren’t any big curve balls here. But, I will say that the start and the end of the movie, the bookends, are the most entertaining. The introduction is perhaps not what you would expect in that it finds Banner out of his element and under control, a good choice in initial development for his character. And if you were disappointed in the lackluster final battle in Iron Man, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the final showdown in The Incredible Hulk. The battle is given ample screen time, and hollering out while the Hulk and his adversary pummel each other is to be expected. The movie also scores major points for showing off some of Hulk’s trademark moves, the same you’d find in a Hulk comic book.
The Incredible Hulk is a fine starting point for a new franchise. Though at times I was taken out of the experience by glimpses into other movies (namely King Kong and later Cloverfield), this is solid groundwork to begin building on – the references to future franchise heroes and villains are more than welcome. It looks like Marvel is finally getting its house in order.
Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman, Christopher Buckley (novel)
Release Date: April 14, 2006 (USA)
Thank You for Smoking - the title alone should help gauge a person's interest in such a comedy. The movie is a satire, fueled by the kind of black comedy and quality dialogue that could only come from a book adaptation - Thank You for Smoking is based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley. Starring in the movie is Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman and vice president for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, aka Big Tobacco. Naylor's job is to talk. He is master of the art of spin, superhero like with his power, and as he often reminds the viewer, he's damn good at his job. But as we come to find out, Naylor's other major role in life is role-model for his impressionable twelve-year-old son.
The selling points here are Eckhart and the dialogue, especially that of the secondary characters. Eckhart is instantly appealing, and he somehow convinces the viewer to side with him, even if he does represent Big Tobacco. As Naylor he is funny, charming, and easy to forgive. On a somewhat related note, I'm anticipating The Dark Knight even more after finding out what Eckhart can accomplish on-screen. To reiterate, the dialogue is great - it's usually a more subtle humor, but there are laugh out loud moments. I could drop a few lines as examples, but they wouldn't make much sense without context or an actor's delivery. Hell, I'll give it a try: "The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese." See what I mean? But believe me, lines like this make the movie.
I could see some people being wary of going into a movie which features Mr. Big Tobacco as its protagonist. But there's no moral high ground in Thank You for Smoking, only grounds for humor, and even some responsibility. I find the following quote by Straylight Run to be a fitting summary of character motivation and the movie as a whole: "It's not life or death, it's only business."
Director: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, Tatsuo Yoshida (animated series Speed Racer)
Release Date: May 9, 2008 (USA)
As a child I was confused by Speed Racer. See, I was accustomed to Western cartoons like Transformers and Thundercats, so the lightning fast car racing (and equally fast-moving lips) of title character Speed were not wholly appealing. Fast forward to a few months ago when I first heard the Wachowski brothers were bringing Speed Racer to the big screen with Emile Hirsch playing the lead role. I was interested, but did not intend to visit the theater for two weeks in a row (Iron Man preceded the Speed Racer weekend opening). But a few friends and I decided to watch a movie recently, and I quickly landed on Speed Racer as our best option.
After emerging from the theater I read some reviews of the movie, and I must say I was surprised. On one hand I had IGN.com, my go-to source for movie reviews. Writer Todd Gilchrist gushed overSpeed Racer, but checking out Rotten Tomatoes, I was met with mostly negative words. So where do I stand? It's taken me a few days to figure that out.
Speed Racer begins fittingly with a race, which is broken up by Speed's memories of his older brother Rex. When Speed was still young Rex left the house under adverse conditions, and it's clear that outside forces have not always been kind to the Racer family. What follows is Speed taking control the only way he knows how: by tearing up the racing track. The plot is not predicable enough to be boring, and it gladly does not toss out tiring philosophical twists (see: The Matrix sequels) - after all, this is a movie intended to be child-friendly. But the movie does run long at more than two hours, and I shifted in my seat at least once. Still, I was happy with the story progression, and the movie wraps up neatly enough, even if some plot trimming would've been ideal.
I've grown to appreciate casting choices more and more, and Speed Racer is solid in this aspect. Hirsch, one of my favorite young actors in Hollywood, does his job well in portraying the initial innocence and startling raw talent of Speed. The Racer family is given foundation with John Goodman and Susan Sarandon playing Pops and Mom Racer respectively. Speed's younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his simian companion Chim Chim may be appreciated by children, but their antics probably go unheeded by adults. If any one performance should be highlighted, it's Lost star Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X. I never pegged Fox as a (super) hero character, but he is fantastic as Racer X. He plays the role perfectly right down to the voice, which is superhero-like almost to the point of parody. He completely won me over.
I have a feeling many critics dismissed this movie the moment they were confronted by the bright colors and erratic camera of Speed Racer. The Wachowski brothers are well known for their use of impressive CGI, and this movie won't change that reputation. The colors pop from the screen, and Speed Racer resembles a living manga, complete with corny facial expressions and exaggerated body movements. The racing scenes are psychedelic experiences; imagine a Super Mario Kart race on Rainbow Road in 500cc mode with plenty of feathers, and you'll have a pretty good idea of how Speed Racer plays out. I have a feeling most of those critics who panned the movie have never appreciated the storytelling of a manga or a damn enjoyable Mario Kart session. The races are, of course, the fun of Speed Racer, and the only problem I had in terms of perspective was the constantly roving camera. I'm fine with a camera moving to and fro during intense action, but while two characters are simply talking to each other, I'd rather the camera stay fixed for a bit. There are too many comic book like cuts as the camera is always searching for the next onscreen panel.
And here's where I stand. Speed Racer is a must see for fans of the original anime - there's no doubt about that. The characters are brought to life as they exist on the small screen, and the racing segments are fun and fast-paced. Those who are not familiar with the anime but are fans of quirky movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow should also give Speed Racer a try. But if you are uninterested in cartoons brought to life and disoriented by bright colors, don't bother with this one. You'll just be scoffing while the rest of us cheer, "Go Speed Racer, Go!"
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus, Matt Holloway, Art Marcum, Hawk Ostby
Release Date: May 2, 2008 (USA)
After Spider-Man 3, I lost faith in Marvel movies. But when I first heard about the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark I couldn’t help but become excited for Iron Man. Downey Jr. seemed he would make the perfect Tony Stark; Stark is, as comic book readers know, a natural born genius with a quick wit. That description could go double for Peter Parker, but Stark is also the rich head of a corporation, a philanderer, and has battled alcohol addiction, placing him somewhere between Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is the best casting there has ever been in a comic book movie. Downey Jr. conveys the nonchalant attitude of Stark wonderfully, but those close to him (such as the viewer) know there’s more to Stark – an inherent goodness inside. In the hands of another actor, this multidimensional aspect of Stark may have slipped by, leaving onscreen a womanizing ass in place of the real Tony Stark. The performance of Downey Jr. alone is worth the price of admission for any comic book fan who would like to see how Iron Man would look and act if he leaped off the comic book page. My only minor gripe with Downey Jr. as Stark: he’s a bit too short for my liking. But I can’t knock Downey Jr. for that one.
Here’s where I kill space by giving a brief outline of the movie. Tony Stark is head of Stark Industries, a major U.S. weapons manufacturer. Stark himself is technologically brilliant, and his skills with machinery are well known around the globe. After a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist group and forced to build them “The Jericho,” the powerful missile Stark had just demonstrated for the U.S. military. Alongside another captive Stark instead builds a suit of armor and escapes his prison. Stark then realizes the devastating impact his weapons company is having on the world, and he begins working on an updated suit of armor, a metallic peacekeeper. There are only a few individuals close to Stark: Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and his business partner and friend Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Though the supporting cast is not as impressive as Downey Jr. in their roles, they do adequate jobs. The buddy relationship between Stark and Rhodes is believable and at times entertaining, though it still needs to be fleshed out (we’ll probably see this in the sequel). Paltrow is likable (and surprisingly attractive) as Potts, but she’s best when seen beside Downey Jr.
Heading into Iron Man I recalled complaints that the movie lacked action. Aside from the final battle, which could have been a grand event with Stark pulling out all the stops with his armor, I’d disagree that a lack of action is the problem. An emphasis on story as opposed to action is fine, and about halfway through I thought to myself, “This movie’s going to get a solid B.” Unfortunately, the storyline does dwindle a bit, and I found myself less engaged. Without spoiling anything for those who have yet to watch, I’ll say the plot seemed to be moving in an interesting direction, one that would place Iron Man closer to our contemporary society and place Stark in a situation to better explore his character. But the movie moves back to familiar good guy vs. bad guy territory, a commercial choice to be sure. This wouldn’t be such a negative sidestep if the villain had more facets of personality than greed and power. Marvel has specialized in villains who are more than mustache-twiddling bad guys who chase money bags – Magneto is a perfect example of this. Sure, as a viewer you’ll want to see the villain in Iron Man knocked down a peg or two (probably more), but he’s nothing special.
Iron Man is a good comic book movie. The special effects are solid, Downey Jr. provides some humor, and the storyline is streamlined enough for the general public to latch onto – the first big summer popcorn flick has arrived. But what Iron Man really brings to the table are possibilities. We can now expect a sequel featuring War Machine, and perhaps Stark’s downfall into alcoholism, and perhaps down the road we’ll even get that Avengers movie sure to make geeks’ heads everywhere implode. Marvel put this franchise in the good hands of Favreau and Downey Jr, and it’s paid off for them and for us. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come from Marvel.
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writer: Jason Segel
Release Date: April 18, 2008 (USA)
I didn’t expect to visit the theater for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but after reading positive feedback from AP.net members, I decided to give this latest Judd Apatow-produced comedy a shot. Jason Segel stars as Peter Bretter, a TV show music composer who's dating the latest It-girl in Hollywood, Sarah Marshall. Sarah is fittingly played by a real-life actress on the rise, Kristen Bell. The premise finds Peter taking a trip to Hawaii after he is nakedly dumped by Sarah, only to find he’s staying at the same hotel as his ex-girlfriend and her new British rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).
After watching his performance as the smooth talking roommate in Knocked Up, I’ve been looking forward to seeing Segel in the spotlight. He creates a likable and pitiable character as Peter, a good person we care about. Bell fits the role of Sarah (and looks great onscreen), and the two lead characters are fleshed out enough to make their relationship and subsequent break-up believable. Quick flashback sequences experienced by Peter and Sarah show the audience what each remember of their relationship and provide instant backfill. Mila Kunis is soon introduction as the free spirited hotel receptionist Rachel Jansen, and she gives Peter a contrast to Sarah and new opportunity. The storyline moves forward, and unlike some comedies, I was actually interested in finding out where the characters would end up and how the story would come to a close. I just wish there were more laughs overall.
It’s not that Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn’t have its moments. There are some funny lines usually delivered by secondary characters, and the movie earns its R-rating with a few humorous instances of full frontal male nudity. Brand in particular shines as the eccentric and rebellious musician, coming through with both spoken and physical comedy; it would be great to see him visit future Apatow movies (of course there are more coming). But what hurts this movie the most is the sometimes lukewarm comedy. The 40 Year Old Virgin and Superbad receive continuous plays in my apartment because of the quality and quantity of laugh out loud moments, which Forgetting Sarah Marshall lacks. But if given the choice, I’d prefer an enjoyable plot with a few missed jokes as opposed to a forgetful plot that brings the funny.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another winner in the Apatow’s budding library of comedies, though as stated before, it may not have the replay value of the movies he’s written and directed himself. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s looking forward to what’s next from both Apatow and Segel.
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Cormac McCarthy (novel)
Release Date: November 21, 2007 (USA)
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress
-W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
Times change. Violence and greed are entwined with our current society, a far cry from a simpler time when one could feel relatively safe leaving his door unlocked when night fell. Time changes nothing. The sins of man are realized today as they have always been; they are interwoven into our species, only taking different forms as the years advance.
Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), sheriff of a West Texas county in the 1980s, muses on those who came before him as No Country for Old Men opens. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a member of that county and leads a life that is anything but extravagant, spending time hunting and ending his days in a trailer with his wife Carla Jean. The two men find their peace disrupted when another man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is found stalking the Texas landscape in search of a missing case containing a life-changing amount of money.
As a native of Texas, Jones fits into his role like a pair of worn-in leather boots. Jones has effortlessly displayed himself as a figure of authority, a lawman, in previous roles such as Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, but his dry humor and philosophical wonderings as Bell offer more insight into the character’s thoughts as opposed to simple, visual action. It wasn’t unexpected that Jones would fulfill a complex role laid out for him; what is surprising is how convincing Brolin portrays the part of Moss. During the film I never connected Brolin to any of the characters I’ve seen him play in previous years. I accepted him immediately as Moss, a man who depends on himself to maintain his own fortune. Shots of Moss set against the Texas brush and churning sky, fittingly free of any musical accompaniment, held me captivated. Recalling Moss balancing his rifle on a dusty boot, I do not care to imagine who he would have been if Brolin had not been cast.
Chigurh, questioningly referred to as “Sugar” by Moss, has been heralded by respectable movie critics as a villainous character who is as intriguing as he is deadly. His appearance and seemingly whimsical methods of choosing death serve to alienate him from the world he inhabits. He could be a man from Mars. Wielding an unorthodox weapon that initially confuses rather than intimidates, Chigurh is indeed a sight to behold. There is not a relaxed moment when he is onscreen, even if the hapless friendos he encounters (are they “hapless?” – perhaps that question requires a coin toss) have no idea of the danger they face when they’re in Chigurh’s presence. Bardem received an Academy Award for his role as the antagonist of No Country for Old Men, a decision that’s difficult to disagree with.
A sense of foreboding hovers over the first half of the movie, which moves forward at a determined pace and finds one man on the dangerous end of a cat and mouse game. Think back to some of the more exciting moments between Tom Hanks and Jude Law in Road to Perdition to get an idea of the razors edge being walked. Moving forward, I’m compelled to address the final and controversial scene of the film. I don't mind an unexpected end, but I've never looked upon closing credits which such astonishment. But, that's an issue that may be rectified upon second viewing or after some distance from the viewing - my chief critique lies with the pacing of the latter half of the film. There are a couple of slow, philosophical moments that I was simply unprepared for, and this doesn’t feel like the kind of film that should be wound down. To make for a more even experience, the first of those moments (which I consider too much of a slowdown so late in the film) could have been placed earlier on to serve the same purpose. With that being said, I have read that No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and if that’s so, it’s difficult for me to argue on the side of changing the source material. The best adaptations are those that are the most faithful, though watching the film before reading the book could prove disappointing in some aspects.
I admit I was hesitant to review this film after only one viewing, feeling a need to ease some confusion with another trip to the theater. But after discussing the film with others, and pondering on it myself, I feel more comfortable writing down my thoughts. And I believe the people who appreciate No Country for Old Men the most are those who enjoy continuing to think after the credits role and are prepared to search for meaning in the art. If the Coen brothers are still an obscure reference to some moviegoers, it doesn't seem their destiny to remain that way.
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Release Date: January 18, 2008 (USA)
Producer J.J. Abrams' decision to make a monster movie, create a Godzilla for America, could have been a bad one. After all, I’m sure many people remember the Godzilla remake set in New York and how poorly that movie was received. Be that as it may, the risk paid off, and America now has a trademark monster it can be proud of. The intriguing and enigmatic "01-18-08" trailer sprung on movie goers before Transformers last summer revealed a going-away party interrupted by the roar and destruction of a creature of immense size. The brief action of the trailer was filmed first hand by one of those in attendance at the party using a hand-held camcorder, and that style is continued in Cloverfield. Thus, the intense shots captured during the film are closer to something seen in a war zone documentary than a King Kong flick. Ron Grover captures the feeling of the cinematography well:
"Forget the monumental, sweeping shots. The up-close and personal style makes the special effects doubly jarring. When the monster's tail snaps through the air, it whips right past your eye. When the monster's tail smashes the Brooklyn Bridge, it rumbles through your stomach. And when the Statute of Liberty's head comes hurtling down a Lower Manhattan street, you all but jump out of its way."
The monster itself is only hinted at early in the film and is revealed steadily throughout, an inventive way for filmmakers to keep production costs down while increasing tension in the audience. The sometimes jerking camera is initially bothersome, but as Cloverfield continues, the first person view just adds to the effect of witnessing a monster attack at ground zero.
Because of the camera style used, comparisons to 1999’s independent horror "documentary" The Blair Witch Project seem inevitable. Both movies are low budget, first hand accounts of terrifying experiences seen through the characters’ viewpoints. Of course, in one movie the antagonist is a rampaging monster and in the other a supernatural witch, but I would argue another notable difference between the two is characterization. I recall sympathizing for the characters in The Blair Witch Project, but there wasn’t a real attachment to the characters. With Cloverfield, on the other hand, the characters we follow are all likable individuals with previous and newfound attachments to each other. And when one character cracks a joke at the improper time, during a late night excursion through a pitch black subway tunnel, it doesn't feel contrived. Some critics argue that the creation of MySpace pages for the main characters was a poor choice, because it requires the audience to search for outside sources to learn about the characters. And indeed it would be a poor choice if it were true. But these outside sources don’t act as a crutch for the movie’s plot. Cloverfield provides enough characterization; these MySpace pages and the accompanying fictitious company websites are simply (somewhat eerie) viral marketing techniques that add to the film experience for those who seek them.
Once we are alongside these characters, a silent third party, the pacing picks up and the roller coaster jars us through loop after loop. Those who have lived through the experience have seemed to be more or less split between enjoying the ride and feeling annoyed (or sick) because of it. By this point it should be pretty clear which side I’m on. Still, there are some moments in Cloverfield in which suspending belief is not easy. Yes, it’s a monster movie, but that doesn’t mean logic of chance should be ignored (I’m not going to go into any specifics here for the sake of anyone who hasn’t seen the movie).
Cloverfield was made for $25 million and didn’t cast any actor close to A-list status. After January 18, 2008 though, those same actors have a success boom on their hands; Cloverfield made $41,000,000 on its opening weekend, beating out the 1997 re-issue of Star Wars for the most successful January release gross ever. Undoubtedly Paramount Pictures would love a sequel after seeing those numbers, though as of this point my better judgment says a sequel (or franchise) would not match the impact of the original. But if a sequel is made with the same creative team (10-10-10?), I can’t say I’d be unwelcoming to America’s new monster.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman, Richard Matheson (novel)
Release Date: December 14, 2007 (USA)
As someone who grew up watching Will Smith regularly on television, and was enthralled during his fight for humanity in Independence Day, I was extremely excited at the post-apocalyptic prospect of I Am Legend. Will Smith stars as Robert Neville, a scientist living in New York and the last survivor of the human race. Three years prior to Neville's seclusion, a supposed cure for cancer began turning the entire human civilization into sun fearing brutes with far more power and aggression than an unchanged human can ever possess. Neville spends his days hunting, searching for a cure to the virus, and attempting to keep himself sane in his state of isolation. He barricades himself in his home at dusk, for that is the time the creatures roam the streets unleashing inhuman grows throughout the city.
Perhaps the premise isn't completely original, but it is refreshing. Watching Neville in charge of an abandoned metropolis during the day, hunting dear and refueling (notice the sky high price of gas), creates a tension in anticipating the first glimpse of one of the night creatures. And that first glimpse is the most rewarding scene of the movie. My heart was in my throat and I was strapped to my seat as Neville found himself in the company of the bloodthirsty. This is the kind of feeling I don't get often enough while watching movies. It certainly doesn't come from watching any of the cliché gore-fest horror movies Hollywood has been churning out as of late.
The creatures are the biggest question mark going into the movie. There are revelations revealed to the audience, but certain questions remain, one of which is how Neville could, as a scientist, underestimate them so much. The believability of these creatures' actions is also somewhat weak. It's hard to believe a virus could give what is essentially a human body the ability to scale buildings like Spider-Man and tackle vehicles. Along those lines, it would have been beneficial to know more about the events leading up to Neville's current situation. We are shown glimpses of chaos and realize his later isolation, but knowing a bit more about what happened in between, if only through secondhand information, could have filled the story in.
From the time of the first trailer of this movie, there have been complaints about the choice to make the creatures, and some of the supporting animal cast, CGI rather than made up humans and real animals. I'm firmly in the camp of people who are against over computerizing roles in movies due to the less believable look of computer generated characters, especially when movies like those of the Lord of the Rings series prove just how relevant professional make up is to cinema today. With that being said, I can't say I'm as disappointed in the CGI use as other critics. Although I agree with those critics, and may be more bothered in subsequent viewings, it was mostly a non issue while enjoying the movie.
And that's what it really comes down to here. This is a good movie because of how fun it is to watch, especially the first time. The second half of the movie does take a dive south, but this does not ruin everything the first half built, especially considering the great interactions between Neville and his only companion, a German shepherd named Sam. It may be hard to believe on paper, or via a computer screen, but the two, man and animal, are fitting costars. Now, there are also the fans of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel of the same name. For as long as I remember, I've loved reading, and I know the pain of one who finds their favorite novel done injustice on the big screen. I can sympathize. But in this case I have not in fact read the preceding book, so I'll consider ignorance bliss. As it remains, I Am Legend is destined to be one of my favorite movies of the year, and will be placed ceremoniously beside Independence Day in my DVD collection, a fitting pair in Smith's legacy.
Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Release Date: July 3, 2007 (USA)
I expected much worse. After watching the atrocity that was Spider-Man 3, I wasn't even planning to visit the movies to watch Transformers. Thanks to some positive reviews I decided to give it a chance, and I must say that the experience of visiting the local AMC was $7.50 well spent. When moving a beloved franchise to the big screen rule number one is remaining close to the source material, and the Transformers writers drop some great details on fanboys. Some great moments include the unmistakable transforming noise used during the first robot in disguise's appearance and the character of Sam's awkward use of the 'more than meets the eye' line.
The movie does drag a bit towards the midpoint and the top secret bunker under Hoover Dam is too close a flashback to Independence Day's portrayal of Area 51, but the battle scenes between the behemoth heroes and villains are impressive. I'm an outspoken critic of the overuse of computer effects in Hollywood, but Transformers utilizes the latest CGI technology to bring the Autobots and Decepticons to gorgeous life. The plot sticks close enough to franchise mythos to satisfy knowledgeable fans even if government involvement in the epic conflict seems heavy handed.
Transformers is a great movie for fans of the classic 80s series, Hasbro's abundant line of Transformers toys, and those looking for a big budget summer action movie that delivers. At the least it will wash the bad taste out of comic fans' mouths after having to sit through Spider-Man 3.
Now if only Ford was the official sponsor of the Autobots rather than Chevy...