Archive | January, 2013

Casino – Review

30 Jan

Martin Scorsese is the king of crime films. There have been others who made excellent contributions to the genre like Michael Mann, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola, but Scorsese is the master. With films like Goodfellas and Mean Streets, it’s quite clear he knows how to craft this kind of film. Unfortunately for Casino, it is normally compared to and overshadowed by Goodfellas. I’m not going to compare the two, but speak about Casino on its own.

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Sam Rothstein (Robert de Niro) is a sports handicapper for the mafia who is chosen by the bosses to run the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas. Everything appears to be going smoothly with both business and his personal like, especially after meeting a hustler named Ginger (Sharon Stone), but then his friend from back home comes to town. This friend is Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), an enforcer with a hot temper and dangerously violent outbursts. Nicky is soon banned from all of the casinos and goes into business for himself. What follows are the next decade of these three characters’ lives and how they go from the height of power and respect to sinking below where they ever were.

Casino is one of the most interesting films that I have ever seen, being in love with the whole Las Vegas scene. It’s great watching Ocean’s 11, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Smokin’ Aces, but I never felt I got as much of an inside look as I did with Casino. There are times where I really felt like I was getting behind the scenes access, especially when they take the viewer to the back room in one awesome continuous take. Another excellent scene is when the camera jumps back and forth between the different casino floor workers and showing who was watching who. It makes me fully begin to comprehend all the work that goes into providing tourists with their dangerous vices.

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I’d like to dedicate an entire paragraph solely to Sharon Stone, but I’ll try to be fair to the other actors. De Niro and Pesci were great, especially Pesci’s fast talking smart ass persona that everyone loves so much. He does some pretty terrible things to people in this movie, but strangely enough we are laughing right along with him through most of the ordeals. Maybe not during the “head in the vise” bit, but most times I found myself laughing. Sharon Stone, though. This is the performance of her career. Forget Basic Instinct. Her portrayal of a coked up  hustler sleaze bag is absolutely incredible. She had to convince Scorsese she was right for the role, and thank goodness she did because her acting is impeccable. There was one point in the movie where I thought to myself, “This is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.” I stand by that. I hated the character as a person, but loved Stone’s acting.

Scorsese was greatly inspired by classic film noir, like the under rated crime gem Force of Evil. Despite the bright colors of Vegas, this film is indeed a noir film, just a different sort of one. Casino is what you would call a “soleil noir”, which means it’s a bright noir as opposed to the high contrast shadowing of traditional noirs. All the pieces are in place for the genre. There’s a tragically flawed “hero”, a femme fatale, crime and mystery, and an interesting use of classic narration techniques. That’s one of the coolest parts of this film, the way Scorsese has the narration affected by what’s happening in the film. In one particular part, Pesci is narrating and in the actual scene he gets punched. When he gets punched, the narration abruptly cuts off. It’s awesome.

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I feel like you shouldn’t compare Goodfellas to Casino, but it’s pretty hard not to. Both movies deal with the same sort of criminals getting into shady dealings that normally end in violence, but it’s pretty fair to say Goodfellas is Scorsese’s masterpiece. That being said, Casino is a fantastic crime epic that goes a lot further, both in content and execution, then a lot of other crime films. It’s deep story about friendship, betrayal, and the dangers of power, themes Scorsese has explored fully before. The movie may not break new ground thematically, but it is a great gangster  flick that is well worth three hours of your time.

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Michael Collins – Review

27 Jan

I remember sophomore year of high school in my European History class we watched a movie called Michael Collins. The entire time I was watching it I kept thinking that I had to go out and get it ASAP. So here we are, about five years later and I finally did just that. I can’t tell you what took me so long because I really have no excuse. Forgive me. Nevertheless, I’m here today to report  back to my wonderful readers if this movie has aged well with me or if my memory is clouded.

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In 1916, Ireland is under the rule of the British government as it has been for 700 years, despite all of the failed attempts at revolution. Michael Collins (Liam Neeson), along with an entire Irish cabinet of leaders, is sick of the British rule and decide that it is once again time for rebellion. This time they won’t play by the rules, and instead resort to guerrilla warfare in the streets of Ireland. Over the course of the next couple of years Collins and his compatriots fight the British with whatever weapon they have in order to win the dream of winning the People’s Republic of Ireland.

There is an all star cast at play in this film, most of which do an excellent job. Liam Neeson is the perfect choice of Michael, even if he is a little old for the role. He commands every scene he’s in and the viewer really feels like they are watching Michael and not Neeson. Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea provide great supporting characters, but of all of them, Alan Rickman is the guy. He supports Neeson’s powerhouse performance with one of his own and acts as a pseudo-doppleganger to Michael. The only weak link is Julia Roberts, whose character and performance bring the movie down a little bit. She really didn’t serve too much of a purpose in the movie at all, besides offering a predictable love affair side story that broke up the movie.

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Historically, this movie has its ups and downs. It hits all of the major points in history but definitely takes its liberties. For one thing, the movie clearly has an agenda and portrays the British a bit too negatively. Show history, but don’t take sides. Another thing is that some of the deaths shown in the movie are either way dramatized or, more interestingly, didn’t actually happen. Alan Rickaman’s character of Éamon de Valera, the third president of Ireland, is shown as a spoiled celebrity of sorts. Still, the historical accuracies are very interesting and the excellent production design really puts you in the middle of it all.

This really is a great story to tell, and one that I don’t think gets too much attention. The first time I ever really learned about conflict in Ireland was the first time I watched The Devil’s Own when I was about 12 years old. I never would have thought that a place like Ireland could be violent. I mean, what about St. Patrick? Anyway, I hear plenty about the American Revolution and the French Revolution, but not too much about Ireland. I wonder why that is. Even though this isn’t the most accurate movie, it’s a good starting point in learning more about the times.

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So in the end, Michael Collins has aged very well for me. It looks great, both the production design and cinematography, and the performances are all top notch, save for one. I just wish that it would have toned down the need to be dramatic in favor of a more historical and unbiased approach. Neil Jordan, the writer/director of this film, is from Ireland, so I can see why he depicts people the way he does, it just isn’t always appropriate. Michael Collins is certainly more entertaining than it is factual, but it certainly serves as excellent entertainment.

The Killer – Review

27 Jan

Here’s a formula to know: John Woo + slow motion + doves + guns = excellence. Woo has over the years become synonymous with Hong Kong action films, and action in general. When talking about his movies, two generally come up when debating over his masterpiece. There’s a group who will say Hard Boiled is his best. The second group will defend The Killer for the number one spot. Which side am I on? Let’s take a look.

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Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) is an expert assassin working for the Chinese Triads. After a hit takes a sour turn and a beautiful lounge singer (Sally Yeh) damages her corneas from the violence, Jong feels responsibility for her. It doesn’t take long for the Triads to realize that Ah Jong has compromised his identity, and soon betray him. Amidst the gunfire and bloodshed stands Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) who is determined to bring the mysterious assassin to justice all the while becoming more and more intrigued in with his motives.

What can I say about John Woo films? They’re totally awesome, and The Killer proves it. You don’t see action movies like this anymore. This movie doesn’t care how realistic it is nor does it want you to take it too seriously. Hundreds of people fall to the barrage of bullets this movie has to offer, and it couldn’t be more fun. Still, the movie is serious at points and offers some really intense scenes of drama that will leave you thinking long after the movie is over. It’s fun, dramatic, and unpredictable all at the same time.

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It was actually really surprising how The Killer affected me emotionally. I went in expecting a huge shoot ’em up without too much depth, but just enough to get by. That’s what Hard Boiled is like. There definitely is good drama in it, but nothing that matches The Killer. It almost plays like a Shakespearean tragedy with tortured heroes who seem to be spelling out their own downfalls. They all recognize their faults and what they have done wrong in their lives and honorably try to fix them. It adds layers to characters who would otherwise be pretty stereotypical. Of course, the performances also help bring the characters to life, and not just the writing and directing. Chow Yun-Fat is especially great, as always. The only detraction is that some of the writing doesn’t translate very well and definitely comes off as way too melodramatic at points.

But don’t go into this movie thinking it’s just a drama because when the bullets start flying, you’ll remember that you’re watching one of the best action films to ever be made. The guns sound excellent and this was thankfully made in a time when squibs were still the norm and digital blood wasn’t even thought of yet. The body count in this movie is outrageous. The elongated action scenes literally just have henchman after henchman charging at our heroes only to have them be dropped in slow motion with doves flying across the scene just to make sure it’s as cool looking as possible.

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If I were to rank The Killer and Hard Boiled, I’d still  have to put Hard Boiled on top. The Killer is a lot more dramatic, but Hard Boiled‘s action scenes are just out of this world. Don’t get me wrong, the action in this film is also great, but sometimes the pacing just slows down a bit too much. At least when it does slow down we are treated to an excellent storyline where we really want our heroes to pull through. You can also observe how this movie has inspired contemporary film makers like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and the Wachowskis. The Killer will truly go down as one of the best action films ever made, and is a whole lot better than anything we may have seen recently.

Marathon Man – Review

22 Jan

I know I’ve said this before, but thrillers are difficult for me. I either love them or I hate them. Most times, thrillers have an excellent plot with lots of suspense and memorable twists. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they also succeed in boring me due to convoluted narratives, derivative characters, and a lack of…well… thrills. Marathon Man had the ability to be an excellent thriller, but due to a ridiculously messy job at pacing and story set up, I was only minimally entertained.

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Thomas Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a graduate student studying history in New York City and his brother Henry (Roy Scheider) is an agent for a secret government organization. Both of their lives are completely separate. Or so they thought. Enter Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), a nazi hiding in Uruguay, and has come to America to collect a fortune of his that was acquired during World War II. Szell is paranoid that Henry is going to try to rob him of his diamonds, so his reasoning is to go after both Henry and his innocent brother Thomas. Now Thomas is up against a for he never thought he’d have to face, with very little help from his supposed allies.

Let’s go through this movie step by step. First off, it is known that all of the main players are masters of their craft. Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but the real powerhouse performance is that of method actor Hoffman. While these performances are great, I can’t say the same thing about the first hour of the movie. We spend a lot of time with Scheider’s character and building up the paranoia of the main plot, and also building up Hoffman’s character and his relationships. Unfortunately the time spent with Scheider is pretty dull and presented sloppily.

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The only thing really interesting about the first hour’s scenes with Dustin Hoffman is his acting. He’s very natural and brings a lot of life into a character that isn’t extraordinarily interesting. You know what else isn’t extraordinarily interesting? The relationship that builds between Hoffman and Marthe Keller. I understand that not every relationship in a movie has to be the most special thing I’ve ever seen, but it should be somewhat interesting. This one was as derivative as could be. Scenes building their relationships seemed to take a while and weren’t too fun.

There is a point when the story does pick up, and pick up it does. The last hour of this movie is absolutely awesome. While I was watching it, I kept thinking to myself, why couldn’t the rest be like this? From the unflinching torture scene that will make you dread the dentist even more to the scenes of Olivier seemingly surrounded by aware Jewish men and women on the streets of NYC. This is where the thrills finally show up. Better late than never, right? Wrong. I shouldn’t have to sit through an hour just to get to the good stuff. The entire movie should be good. I don’t negotiate with entertainment.

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It’s safe to say that I wanted to like Marathon Man a lot more than I did. It claims to be a thriller, but I’d consider it half of one. The first half of the movie feels both dull and disjointed, while the second half held my attention until the conclusion. Like I said before, I shouldn’t have to wait an hour to get to the thrills. I understand the need for character and plot development, but at least keep it interesting. If the pacing was as good as the performances, the movie would be great, but instead I can only call this a mildly entertaining thriller.

Zero Dark Thirty – Review

21 Jan

9/11 and the hunt for Osama bin Laden will go down as major events in American history for future generations. While the news media fed the population both facts and lies, we never really knew exactly what was going on. All that we could assume was that we were the good guys and they were the bad guys. When news of torture and mistreatment of prisoners began surfacing, we didn’t want to hear it. Now, Zero Dark Thirty shows us what may be the closest version of reality that we are ever going to get on this subject.

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The story begins two years after the events of 9/11. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a new member of the CIA stationed at the American embassy in Pakistan to aid in the excursion to find bin Laden. While there she meets Dan (Jason Clarke) who gives her the first taste of what she is going to have to deal with over the years. As time goes on and the CIA begins getting more desperate, Maya finds a lead that she believes will lead straight to the man himself. In order to prove this theory, she has to first track this lead down and convince her own government that her hypothesis will bring an end to “the greatest manhunt in history.”

In my previous review, I talked about how Contagion spanned many different story lines and characters. Zero Dark Thirty similarly spans years. This is a very challenging movie that requires absolute attention even though we all know what the ending is going to be. Being a two and a half hour long movie, the viewer knows that there’s going to be a lot in this movie, but let me tell you, there is more than I thought. If you end up not understanding or catching everything your first time through, don’t be concerned. If you did, you’re lying.

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As one might obviously suspect, this movie was met with as much controversy as it was accolades. First off, the film and its makers are accused of being pro-torture. Well, I can’t say that I felt that way at all. It was shown in a very brutal and realistic way, but never was it glamorized or endorsed. When a character spoke of enjoying torture, I felt like the film was being ironic. There was also accusations that information was leaked for the film. In that case, awesome. I sure hope it was. Finally, the original October release date cause some politicians to say that it was pro-Obama and being used to support his campaign. Obama is shown once in the movie on tv, and I wasn’t too impressed with the hypocrisy of his statements. Maya is the hero here, not Obama.

Anyway, back to the movie itself. If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, you’re absolutely aware that Kathryn Bigelow has the ability to work with the scenario of Middle East conflict, and she shows masterful work with Zero Dark Thirty. The scenes of terrorism are shocking and she utilizes the surrounding environments really well to put the viewer right in the middle of the action. Even when the characters are in board meeting and just chatting as friends, I felt like I was there and part of it. If anything, this is one of the most real “war” movies that I have seen.

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The hunt for Osama bin Laden and the War on Terror have been some of the most important American events since its beginning. Zero Dark Thirty does justice to the whole situation. I believe that Bigelow and her fellow cast and crew did a very good job in showing just how it all happened from the violence to the meetings to the emotions of everyone involved. Politicians and spies are people too, not just government machines and I really got that feeling with this movie. I haven’t seen all of the nominees for Best Picture this year, but if Zero Dark Thirty were to win, I would be perfectly content. It is exceptional.

Contagion – Review

20 Jan

The unknown is a pretty terrifying thing, but what happens when the unknown goes viral? Panic? Desperate people doing desperate things? A massive fight for survival is a definite. Disease is, believe it or not, a natural disaster. AIDS, SARS, and the flu are just a few examples. They’re small quiet killers that don’t care who they attack. Steven Soderbergh recognizes this and realistically displays such terror in Contagion.

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After a businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a trip, she becomes seriously ill leaving her husband (Matt Damon) to care for her son and his daughter by himself. This virus soon spreads throughout the world leaving a trail of destruction in its path. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) work for the CDC and try to not only find a cure, but also keep the situation as calm and sterile as possible. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a internet blogger who decides to use the outbreak to make quick cash and powerful step above the bureaucrats. Finally, Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) works for the World Health Organization in Hong Kong, but is soon kidnapped and held ransom until a cure can be found for the disease.

The narrative presented by Soderbergh is impressive. He did the same kind of thing with his masterpiece from 2000, Traffic. This narrative style is called “hyperlink narrative.” This style involves having multiple characters with their own plots and devices and having them interwoven with each other to make a sort of collage of humanity over time and space. It is a very challenging type of film to fully comprehend, even if you consider yourself to be the world’s biggest cinephile, and Contagion is no exception.

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The best part of the movie is trying to keep up with all of the story lines thrown at you at once and seeing all of the connections. In that same respect it would be difficult to really care about each character since we are constantly jumping around. This really isn’t a problem in this movie though thanks to the writing/acting combination. All of the actors (there’s too many to name them all individually) are great. My personal favorite is Jude Law since I was never quite sure what he was up to and he was also very outspoken. In real life, I would hate this guy, but in the movie he was great.

While I said “this isn’t really a problem” does not mean that it wasn’t at all. This movie is far from being perfect and teeters comfortably on the good/great line. The scale of it s great, but it is stretched way too much. There is a certain character in this movie (coughcoughmarioncotillard) that I didn’t care about in the least. She had all the building blocks to be memorable, but she wasn’t used enough and when she was onscreen she didn’t have the same force as the other characters did. It’s really a shame because I feel like her character would be important.

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Contagion will certainly succeed in freaking you out. It will also succeed in making you think of how the governmental powers of the world may realistically act during a situation like this. The narrative approach of this movie is perfect for the genre, but not done as well as I would have liked. I appreciate the realism and the attempt. It’s a brilliantly planned and and thought out movie. Unfortunately, the writing of certain characters and scenes make people and events feel not so important. This is a good movie that was a little too long and stretched out. If you miss this movie, you’ll survive, but giving it a chance wouldn’t hurt either.

Rope – Review

18 Jan

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the game changers of film. With each movie he makes, there seems to be something exciting brought to the table that seems so ahead of its time. In Vertigo, camera techniques bent our minds as much as the story. In Psycho, Hitchcock seemed to break all the rules that were maintained concerning what’s decent. With Rope, an interesting way of constructing a movie was seen through the long take. This wasn’t the first time it was seen, but it’s an impressive feat nonetheless.

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Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) think they have gotten away with the perfect murder. They have strangled a friend of theirs, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), and hid him a chest in their living room. In order to prove their genius, they hold a party that same night, with the guests including two old friends, their old school house master Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), and David’s father (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt (Constance Collier). With the night going exactly as planned, they are surprised when Cadell begins suspecting the two are up to no good.

I was very impressed with this movie. For the entire hour and twenty minutes that the movie is on, there only seems to be a few cuts. There are actually more than that, but they are hidden using tricky camera effects to make it seem like the entire movie is happening in real time and the action continuous. This is a style that I really enjoy, with modern film makers like Alfonso Cuarón keeping it alive. A lot of the set was actually kept on wheels and tracks so that it could be silently moved around so as to not disturb the continuity of the camera.

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The performances in this movie are good, but really nothing to write home about compared to other Hitchcock films. James Stewart is the actor that really holds all of the scenes that he’s in higher than the rest, and when he first makes his entrance it is memorable and says a lot about his character. So while the actual line delivery isn’t always that impressive, the sheer amount of lines to be said in one take is a huge credit to the actors. Pages and pages of dialogue are used for one take, which must have been very difficult to do. The whole thing is very theatrical, which is appropriate since Rope is based off of a stage play.

After Hitchcock filmed Ropehe said he merely made it as an experiment. In that sense, would this be considered an experimental film? In some ways, yes, but it doesn’t always feel like one. There are times where I really do notice the technique, and it gets kind of distracting. James Stewart wasn’t a huge fan of this film, stating he felt that he was miscasted.

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While Rope is certainly not Hitchcock’s best work, I will say that it is under rated. The techniques implemented along with the skill of the actor’s are definitely noteworthy. It’s slow and often tedious, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing Rope, especially if you’re a fan of Hitchcock and his suspenseful style.