31 May 2011

The Girl with the Leaked Trailer

Damn you, David Fincher. I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and was left cold. Noomi Rapace did what she could, the supporting cast could have been carved out of a coffee table and it was a chore to sit through. Enter one of the best directors of the past two decades and now I'm curious. Fincher seems to be back in his Se7en/The Game punk mode and the trailer reflects that.

The leaked trailer - which might or might not a studio effort - leaves me anticipating more. Which is more than I could have ever expected after hating the original.

28 May 2011

Review: A 'Hangover' They Don't Deserve

When Phil (Bradley Cooper) calls a very distressed Tracy at the beginning of The Hangover Part II, you know exactly where Todd Phillip's latest round-up with Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifinakis is going. Initially, the thought process of the viewer goes from shock, confusion, anger and then finally complacency. Are they going to remake The Hangover shot for shot?

The problem with the sequel to the very successful 2009 comedy is that it really isn't a film, it's an exercise of cynicism in show business. Warner Brothers had 277,322,503 reasons to make a sequel, yet they may have gone a bit overboard in recreating what they had with the first film.

Todd Phillip's sequel is structurally the same as its predecessor —the hijinks are justly ratcheted up several notches— but the draw of The Hangover Part II wasn't originality, the draw was hanging out with Phil, Stu and Alan for another crazy ride. It is understandable that Warner Bros. greenlit a sequel because the original was so successful financially, but this is borderline offensive to audience sensibilities.

Thankfully, some of the repetition can be forgotten because all three leads have grown into their own and the script gives them plenty of room to breathe comically. Fortunately for Doug (Justin Bartha), he is given more to do than just sit on a hotel roof, Stu's future brother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee, who could use some seasoning) gets to suffer that indignity this time.

What makes the whole situation worse for the group is they all could have avoided this if Stu had just been given his bachelor party at IHOP, like he wanted. Given that these boys will boys, we all know what will happen instead.

Bangkok makes for an excellent locale for a movie that needs something to sustain itself after trashing Vegas and the sometimes beautiful, but always dangerous city obliges. Scenes you wouldn't think would make it past an MPAA board are flaunted right in your face. Around every corner lies countless dangers, drug-dealing monkeys, tattoo parlors and occasionally a very pissed off Paul Giamatti. Mr. Chow is also available for a second go around (Ken Jeong is a brave, brave man).

Despite the carbon copy nature of plot, laughs are still had, though they are few. I don’t know where Phillips and co. are heading for the inevitable sequel, but maybe we could avoid letting Alan handle the food next time and take some ginseng for memory?


Review: Everyone Wins Except Audience (The Greatest Movie Ever Sold)

Morgan Spurlock’s newest documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a revue exploiting the use of advertising, branding, and product placement in the movies. The walking contradiction, or the joke that keeps on giving is that his film, is also financed by advertising, branding, and product placement. Luckily the comedy is strong enough to last the film’s 90-minute run-time. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a daring, competent, and consistently entertaining documentary.

Spurlock is a notorious filmmaker – who is equal measures prolific and eccentric. His 2004 controversial documentary, Super Size Me did direct damage on the McDonalds organization. The same affect is not likely to happen here.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is at its best when Spurlock is interviewing other filmmakers – such as Quentin Tarantino – who admits he’s written numerous scripts in which he wanted his characters eating and talking in a Denny’s (think Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs). But Denny’s shot him down because it was too violent of an atmosphere to represent their restaurant (as if Denny’s is the Tavern on the Green?).

Spurlock gathers other directors for his counter argument – Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) who admits accepting the business is the only to make money and Peter Berg who, like Ratner has just accepted the business for what it is.

How could that be? I’m not one to easily be repulsed by product placement or branding – because I’m aware that without such commercials – movies would be far and few. But a line must be drawn. The fact that these directors care that much about the money and quantity, over quality is saddening. After watching The Greatest Movie Ever Sold my respect for Kevin Smith, who has decided to turn his back on the studios – produce, direct, and market his new film Red State, went up immensely.

Spurlock illustrates the atmosphere we live in with his charming personality. He talks to agents, producers, product reps, musicians, and placement specialists – plenty of those scenes pop – and many of the people on the other line are perplexed by his inquisitions and intent of making a documentary exploiting advertisement and branding, while being produced by advertisement and branding.

Honestly, I too was confused from time to time. When the film concluded I tried to gather my thoughts and figure out what it amounted to. Spurlock is told he should “take the money and go” – and in many ways he does. But that’s ok, because in the process he’s created a film that’s original and entertaining.

By now a majority of people know and understand how films are being made – organizations and companies produce blockbusters and romantic-comedies like clockwork. They create these films by culminating what’s trending in modern-day-society, showcasing their product at every opportunity in the movie, and ultimately try to sell the viewer their product. The crazy thing is, in most cases, it’s done in a very sly and underlying sort of way.

Spurlock’s ingenious documentary is neither groundbreaking nor revelatory – but it is fun. I had a good time watching Spurlock straggle along from product companies to movie studios – and getting rejected, sometimes accepted, but always being charismatic. If you buy into the film’s ploy and let it ride – I can’t imagine you won’t have a good time.

By the way, did I mention the official title of the film is POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”? How about Merrell’s and how they are comfortable, arch supporting, inexpensive shoes? Also did you know POM Wonderful can provide some of the benefits of Viagra? Oh, I almost forgot to mention that Hyatt Hotels blow out the Four Seasons and Mini Coopers are the cars of the future, especially with a full tank of gas from OK Go, while wearing Old Navy.

Too much advertising? Take a hint Hollywood.

26 May 2011

The Pratfall of 'Django Unchained'

Will Smith is the most marketable movie star in the world. Between Men In Black, Independence Day, and Bad Boys Mr. Smith is the man responsible for most summer blockbusters. He is recognized everywhere and virtually liked by all. That is until the release of Seven Pounds. Seven Pounds was the follow-up collaboration between Will Smith and director Gabriele Muccino after the critical success The Pursuit of Happyness (which earned Smith his second Best Actor nomination). It was a emotionally raw performance and a brave one at that.

Unfortunately, it was also panned across the board. Despite Smith's portrayal Seven Pounds was declared melodrama at its worst. At some portions the film is unrelentingly ghoulish which makes the role of Ben Thomas that much more important to cast correctly. Ben has to be empathetic, he has to be good, but he also has to be superhumanly giving. Even with everything Smith gave to his character it wasn't enough. And for many critics the maudlin ending was too much. The film received no accolades, nor did its star.

Flash forward three years and Will Smith has been virtually invisible. Only recently he has started work on Men In Black 3 and signed deals for a Bad Boys sequel and possibly Quentin Tarantino's next western, Django Unchained. Django presents many opportunities and conflicts for the megastar. On one hand accepting the role would open the creative passage that Mr. Smith has seemingly been avoiding since Seven Pounds, but like all creative opportunities, backlash could await. Tarantino has never been known for subtlety  and Django Unchained is said to contain liberal use of racial slurs, something that could be a thorn for Smith, who manages his profile very carefully.

What it all comes down to is whether the lure of busting outside Mr. Smith's combed image will be too much to resist. The role of Django comes with some questionable material, but the part is a heroic one. Denzel Washington, known for being one of the best actors of his generation, won much acclaim, but never the big prize until Training Day. Washington has never been the man to turn down a potentially darker role and his career has benefited from it. The question will be whether Mr. Smith decides to do the same.

10 Words or Less: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Madness, valor, cowardice. No soldier's story is the same.

24 May 2011

'Descendants' Clip

Looks like a fitting follow-up from Sideways. Also, how talented is Mr. Clooney that he can run in flip-flops?

20 May 2011

Latest 'Green Lantern' Trailer

It looks like DC has a better idea of where it's going with Green Lantern. All is left to do now is to wait until June.

First Look at Tom Hardy as Bane

This is unsurprisingly creepy. Ledger may have competition for most disturbing villain after all. I suppose the next question is where is Bane at? Arkham? The League of Shadows compound? India?

18 May 2011

Review: Something Original (Certified Copy)

Certified Copy is an ingenious piece of work from writer/director Abbas Kiarostami. It’s essentially a 106-minute film of inquisitions – luckily for us, they are more than interesting. This is undoubtedly a provocative film. But it is not, despite a slew of shining positive attributes, a great picture.

The film is set over one long afternoon in Tuscany. It casts Juliette Binoche as a French antiques dealers who happily invites a famed English writer (William Shimell) to go see a museum and possibly make some detours on the way. The two unique individuals, who’ve never meet before today – are accidentally seen as a married couple – and soon decide to go along with the game. Role-playing seems fun at first, but laughs quickly escalate to serious conversations on family, love, and commitment. Add in some sexual attraction, highbrow drama, and flirtation – and there you have it: a dark, enigmatic, and more often than not, polarizing film about marriage and the notion of originality.

What kept Certified Copy entertaining throughout were the brilliant performances from both William Shimell and Juliette Binoche. The two are likable actors – who instantly draw in believability to their “fake” relationship. As the film transcends into its final sequences it becomes clear that these two are one of the better on-screen pairings to come around in quite sometime.

Adding excellence to the film is the breathtaking cinematography by Luca Bigazzi – who gives the film its own natural ebb and flow. And one could not forget the unique use of tracking shots slathered throughout the picture. All of this and more make Certified Copy, certifiable.

Regardless of all the aspects of the film I cherish – Certified Copy contains an oddly weak opening 30 minutes. Director Abbas Kiarostami drags his film through a bland and sluggish narrative – as he tries to establish a starting ground for his characters. Still, it wasn’t the inconsistent pacing or unsatisfying opening that brought the overall product down – it was the film’s constant need for raising questions – than quickly abandoning them. No easy answers are offered, which is fine, but it feels as if Kiarostami adds a numerous amount of inquisitions to toy with the viewer – rather than satisfy.

Though, what can be said about Certified Copy is that it makes the audience think – which is more than you can say about the majority of modern day releases. Here’s a film that you can react and respond to in many different perspectives. The final 30 minutes are engrossing and the performances from the leads are mesmerizing. Sure, the final product doesn’t live up to some of the films other features, but Certified Copy is an original work of art – and that’s something we all can be thankful for.


You can follow me on twitter @DukeSensation

17 May 2011

Tintin Teaser Trailer

The talent involved has me intrigued, but will motion capture "dead eyes" turn too many people away?

The Vault: Reign of Fire (2002)

Before Christian Bale was Batman, Gerard Butler was Leonidas and Matthew McConaughey was the dude from those Kate Hudson flicks, dragons ruled the Earth.

Humans have been supplanted as the dominant species of Earth. After a discovery by a young Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale minus heavy voice, same starvation) dragons were unleashed from the underground caves which they were hiding in the UK. Since that day people are forced to live in almost uninhabitable small colonies. Quinn and Creedy (Gerard Butler) are the heads of an outfit in Northern England, when they are not farming, preparing and performing The Empire Strikes Back for the children they are fighting for their lives.

Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) is a die-hard kind of American. He makes a living killing dragons. His obsession with dragons almost borders Ahab-ian levels although it could be worse considering that Captain Ahab was only obsessed with one whale, Van Zan has hundreds of winged-beasts to hate. McConaughey has fun chewing scenery as Van Zan, the intensity of his stare can melt buildings and his primal scream attacking the napalm-breathing bastards is unrivaled. Few lines were as memorable for me as when I watched Reign of Fire, but "There's nothing magical about it. They're made of flesh and blood. You take out their heart you bring down the beast," stands out most.

Reign of Fire revels in its own atmosphere, but the problem is occasionally we do not know why there is only one dragon, why there aren't more, and why Van Zan only has cigar butts. If you don't mind lingering questions this dystopian dragon venture will be worth your while.

16 May 2011

10 Words or Less: Collateral (2004)

Death and Taxis.

13 May 2011

Review: Guardian Hell's Angel (Hesher)

Adolescence is never an easy experience. For T.J. it is made significantly more difficult with the passing of his mother. His home life is non-existent: his father, Paul, (Rainn Wilson) is glued to the couch and budges only to pass judgement on grief counseling groups and his grandmother is just going with the flow. School days are marked by a bully assaulting him in the bathroom. The only reprieve T.J. can take are his visits to the grocery store where Nicole (Natalie Portman) works. With no refuge to take in at home, what is a teenage boy to do?

With the aid of what some may call fate, or more accurately, bad luck, Hesher comes into T.J.'s life. He smells bad, has a perchance for starting fires and his language could only be described as foul. Hesher could only be described as a guardian angel with an entirely irrepressible id. Sharing sexual escapades at a dinner table with T.J.'s grandmother is not even enough to make own arch an eyebrow. His idea of getting even with a bully involves attempted murder and then abandoning T.J. at the scene. There are no lows for this character and for that, we thank Spencer Susser. The writer/director does not over indulge in stylized shots or quirky song selections. He lets his anarchist loose on the rest of the cast and sits back.

At times during the film it feels like Hesher may just wire up the film and blow it up for his own amusement, but Gordon-Levitt revels in the jester without turning Hesher into a charade. There is heart to Hesher's crude  metaphors for life. T.J., Paul, and Nicole need a boot to shake the cobwebs and live. There really is no other comparison I could make for Hesher other than Clarence of Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. Although Clarence never partook of a joint. Not that I know of anyway.

The ultimate downfall of Hesher is that the film lacks interesting characters besides Joseph Gordon-Levitt. While Devin Brochu, Rainn Wilson and Natalie Portman all quite accurately convey those in distress over loss and having a crappy life, that doesn't make for any compelling drama in the eyes of viewers. As such, Hesher only entertains when he is onscreen. Like the fires that he starts so often: there is a flash and then everything fizzles into smoke.

**1/2 out of ****

Back to School

11 May 2011

Review: Bridesmaids

Most addicts won't attempt to change their lives until they have hit rock-bottom. Well, Annie (Kristen Wiig) is addicted to having a terrible life. Her bakery went out of business, her friend with benefits is a self-proclaimed dick (Jon Hamm) and her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married.

That in itself isn't a bad thing, but Lillian is becoming quite chummy with socialite Helen (Rose Byrne). Annie's grip on the one constant in her life is slipping away thanks to some tart with a membership to the country club. That conflict will have to wait for another day though, Lillian has asked Annie to plan her wedding.

Armed with three of the most "unique" bridesmaids she can handle, Annie assembles a hodge-podge gown fitting and meal. Of course a wedding wouldn't be a wedding without a bachelorette party. The hilarity that ensues from each of the events tops each previous scene with glee. We are presented a vignette of all the bridesmaids (Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper, and Wendi McLendon Covey) all of whom are cast perfectly.

Kristen Wiig has been one of the best things going for Saturday Night Live in a long time and her transition to feature comedies will be a breeze. Newcomers Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd are other actors to look out for in the future. When Annie is onscreen with Rhodes (O'Dowd) and Megan (McCarthy), scenes take on a particular glow. Jon Hamm is seriously hilarious - it will be hard to take Don Draper serious when Mad Men comes back. This cast is tailor-suited for breaking out grins in the audience.

I cannot stress enough how much fun this film is, but like most of Judd Apatow's productions and director Paul Feig's work (creator of the underrated Freaks and Geeks), this is a comedy with a heart. Very few things are a given in life and friendship is usually one of the most turbulent relationships human beings go through. We lose our friends, people drift apart and time moves on, but that place in our hearts is usually never filled.

I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. Bridesmaids has set the bar really high for comedies this summer and it is difficult to see anything topping it. Let's raise a glass in a toast to Bridesmaids, for proving chick flicks don't need to have Katherine Heigl, and that women have always been funny, they just need to right film to do it.

***1/2 out of ****

09 May 2011

The Vault: American History X (1998)

American History X is not about racial discrimination, though it often may appear to be. No, Tony Kaye’s picture is about the choices we make in our lives and how it evidently defines us as person. We as people are forced to make tough decisions. Decisions that require a certain amount of good judgment, and fortitude. For many, they will make the right decision and live a prosperous, normal life, and for some they will fall of the wagon. Prison is where they’re headed (if the predicament is of that serious nature). The only thing in their mind is how they are going to get out of this cruel and angst-filled atmosphere in one piece. Those lucky enough to survive the vigorous day-to-day features of prison are grateful. Derek Vinyard was grateful. Because you see, there’s a point in everybody that shows our true colors, what our real feelings are. And deep down, under all that anger and hatred Derek projected o-so often, is a kind, understanding person, who more importantly, knows right from wrong.

The film casts Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a neo-Nazi who is tried and convicted to three years in prison for the murder of two African Americans who were trying to break into his truck. In prison he goes through, like most, some rough times. But from those dreadful periods where it appears nothing good can rise from it, comes some racial and ethical enlightenment. Derek soon realizes every race has their negatives and positives. Though, quickly after he’s released from prison, he’s faced to deal with the task of convincing his brother, Danny played by Edward Furlong, the same ideas he’s learned over those three long, treacherous years of grievance.

It’s because of those key lessons in life (judgment, honesty, fortitude, balance), brought to the screen in a surreal fashion by American History X, that makes this film one of the most emotionally devastating pictures to be released in the last 20 years. It’s a masterful picture that ebbs and flows with groundbreaking performances from Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, and beautiful, breathtaking cinematography by Tony Kaye. Whether or not people overlooked the picture when released in 1998 is beyond my knowledge. What I do is that American History X is a moving piece of cinema, that takes an earnest look at this mans life: in particular what he has done, how is irrational decisions have put a burden on his family, and how after all those days and nights of fighting for a fabricated propaganda-filled cause, he could succumb and arrive at a place of such utter confusion.

So, when a picture is complete, if it’s good, I enjoy sitting in my seat, wallowing in the films greatness, and just staring at the screen, thinking back to what I just witnessed, and reflecting how it affected me. At the end of American History X, tears and all, I could remember one scene in particular o-so vividly. The film turns to black and white (symbolizing the past) and Derek (Edward Norton) is lying and crying on the penitentiary hospital bed, after an ugly incident with some fellow inmates. It’s the first time we say Derek let his emotions depart from within, and at last we can feel his vulnerability. Then, Dr. Sweeney (Avery Brooks) walks into the room. The two talk, Derek pleads for help, and being the caring person he is Sweeney says, “I can help you, but it’s not unconditional help, you must make a change”. Derek looks at him, shrugging his head, drowning in his own sadness. But then, the turning point of the picture comes when Sweeney looks directly at Derek and Sweeney says “Derek, tell me something, has anything you’ve done in your life, made it better”? Derek’s answer is no. And that small, though crucial scene is what makes American History X the masterpiece it is today.

Because when you see a film that can evoke such emotions from an audience, it has not only fulfilled its endeavor, but it has also made a genuine impact on ones life. That’s the beauty of cinema, the ways it can move you and make you think about certain topics in a whole new light. That’s why in some degree labeling American History X as a well acted, and emotionally grounded drama, seems inadequate. Though it certainly is all the accolades I’ve proclaimed, the film is so much more than words can describe. It speaks to anyone who wants to watch and listen to a story that needs to be seen.

American History X is a compelling and powerful film that shows all of the fighting against one another does no good in society, but ultimately causes more harm. Derek, though it may have taken three years, realized this, and at last, decided to make a change. Sadly, life sometimes has other plans for us.

You can follow me on twitter @DukeSensation

07 May 2011

First Look at 'Cogan's Trade'

It has been five long years since Andrew Dominik introduced The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the world. This is the first look at his next effort, Killing Them Softly debuting in 2012. Those of you expecting a similarly Malick-ian effort like James should advise that this forthcoming film starring Brad Pitt will likely be more similar to Chopper.

(Courtesy: Screen Daily)

06 May 2011

Review: Thor 3D

Looking at Thor from pre-production there were several questions surrounding the film. Would Aussie Chris Hemsworth manage to be a convincing Norse God? Can Kenneth Branagh take comic-book material and turn it into something worth watching? Will the costume look as awkward as it did in the comics? Fortunately, the answer to those questions is yes, yes, and no.

It should have been obvious that Thor would naturally lend itself to Branagh's Shakespearean leanings. A royal heir cast from the kingdom, a murderous rivalry between two siblings, a man fighting a battle in a foreign land. All of the elements of a great drama. 

Thor is a brash and arrogant young man. During the course of a information expedition he re-ignites a war that has lasted for the ages. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) fed up with such childish antics does not approve and casts Thor from Asgard. It is here on Earth that the humor of Thor shines through. The value of Chris Hemsworth's charm is truly on display when he is interacting with his human counterparts. On Earth mere velcro can contain the mighty Thor - much to his surprise - but the scenes in New Mexico become a little dull as the more lively action takes place in the stellar Asgard. Thankfully the mainstay of the Marvel universe, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is as sharp as his pressed suit.

You would think that Asgard in all of its CGI creation would be too alien to enjoy, but to the contrary many of Thor's best scenes take place there. Branagh knows how to capture the essence of the tension in hierarchies and with Odin, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), he has much to work with.

Tom Hiddleston is a newcomer of sorts with mostly television on his resume. His Loki is less of a prankster and more of a sociopath in Branagh's vision. His expanded role in The Avengers will be entertaining. The cast as a whole is great, but Portman's chemistry with Mila Kunis in Black Swan seemed more believable than her screentime with Hemsworth.

The 3D is not absolutely necessary to enjoy Thor but it is not to the film's detriment either. It is featured in a less obnoxious fashion than most of 2011's other releases and in the film's several transportation scenes is worth it.

Thor could be the most enjoyable comic-book film of the summer - or the year for that matter -  Chris Hemsworth is a star in the making and his continued adventures as the God of Thunder shall be anticipated.


Your Thoughts on 'The Beaver'

 The film that created goodwill for Mel Gibson before he blew it all away again is out. Love it, hate it, or somewhere in between? Leave your take in the comments below.

05 May 2011

Footage from Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Drive'

Cannes main site is offering a first look at Drive. Unfortunately, the clip cannot be embedded. Do yourself a favor and click here to see the footage. Beware, you will be hooked once you do.

04 May 2011

Armond White's Top Ten Films on Flickchart

Armond White is film criticism’s most famous contrarian. At one moment he writes a review declaring Toy Story 3 to be the most obscene excuse for toy commercials he has ever watched, and then two weeks later types out a glowing review of Resident Evil: Afterlife. He is of split-mind for sure. But what does his Flickchart look like?

02 May 2011

The Vault: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Unmistakably the best of the series. A progressive society where good and evil is presented in black and white. Star Wars was a breath of fresh air to moviegoers in the 70's where society was only shades of gray. Taxi Driver presented Travis Bickle as a hero, albeit a demented one. Here, Luke, Han and Leia are all entirely good heroes. So it came as a sucker punch that after the feel-good 'New Hope' its sequel was so dark.

Star Wars ended with so much going for the Rebel Alliance. Luke finished off the Death Star with relative ease, and seemingly the Empire was back on its heels. But alas, this was not the case. Vader now commands the Empire and will cease at nothing to destroy the Rebels. Things are not looking good for underdogs. Hoth, the current base of the Alliance is fending off one attack after another. After escaping certain death Luke and R2-D2 head to the Dagobah system to learn the teachings of Yoda.

The Empire Strikes Back presents the largest challenge for many of the characters because they are in unprecedented territory. Luke has never trained with anyone besides Ben and Han has never had to depend on other people before. Leia is also dealing with allowing people to be close to her after the annihilation of everyone on her home planet. The transition the three have to make is what propels this story above A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

The films also features the best duel of the series. Initially, Vader only planned on combating until Luke ends up trapped in carbonite. But as tempers flare the battle becomes more vicious. Each slash comes perilously close to ending Luke's life. The other films had a slight problem with the lightsaber duels that Irvin Kershner did not make. Each clash is uninterrupted and captivating.

'Empire' ends with an unrelentingly dark close on the battle against the Evil Empire. Han is frozen in carbonite awaiting Jabba - and presumably his death - on Tatooine. Luke is missing a hand and dealing with the most devastating revelation of his life and Leia has seen herself lose the love she just realized she had. A cold place for sure. But assuredly a classic.