Tag Archives: woody harrelson

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Review

6 Dec

Martin McDonagh is a man of many talents. For years he’s been writing plays in Europe and has received much acclaim. Not only that, but every foray he’s made into film has also been a success. In Bruges took critics and audiences by surprise and was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, didn’t get the recognition that In Bruges did, but it worked as a darkly subversive comedy that broke all the rules of narrative. Well, I’m thrilled to say that McDonagh has really outdone himself this time with what is far and away the best film he’s ever made, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This is the kind of movie that will give you a physical response that’s similar to a bag of bricks being dropped on your stomach. As the credits rolled, I almost couldn’t move because I was just so stunned at what I just saw.

It’s been 7 months since Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) daughter was brutally murdered and the police have come no closer to solving the crime and bringing justice to the killer. After seeing three unused billboards on a small road outside of town, Mildred decides to buy the ad space and put up three signs that ask why the murderer hasn’t been caught, with much of the hostility directed to Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). These billboards spark new life in the case of Mildred’s daughter but it also reveals a much uglier side to the town of Ebbing, Missouri. The town is quickly divided between those who support the billboards and Mildred’s crusade, and others who sometimes violently oppose it, including one of Willoughby’s officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). As tensions flare, Ebbing turns into a Cold War zone and it’s a time that will change the small town forever.

There’s so much to praise in Three Billboards that it’s hard to know where to start. What really had me overwhelmed the most was the whole concept of the film, but also how it was written. From the time the billboards are put up, tension builds quickly, and there are a few times where that tension explodes only to return with a vengeance. This film is relentless in its storytelling and barely gives the audience time to breath. Martin McDonagh is known for his ability to deftly blend dark comedy and brutally realistic drama, and this is the height of that. This movie is a lot sadder than it is funny, but there are plenty of belly laughs to have throughout the film’s narrative. When you aren’t laughing, however, McDonagh takes the dramatic side of the story and weaves it in a way I’m sort of unfamiliar with. There are few movies that really, genuinely shock me, but this one went places I never expected. This made the whole experience feel 100% fresh and new.

What really makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri work so wonderfully is emotional depth of the story. I’m not talking about if it makes you happy or sad or base feelings felt by the characters, but something that’s been lurking underneath the facade of the town for years. This is a story of hate exploding in an area not built to properly contain it. It’s a natural reaction felt by normal people living in a world that has become overwrought with anger and opinions mixed with violence. This is an incredibly timely film that also can be viewed as timeless. There’s no moral center in this film. No character serves as the hero. Each one is deeply flawed with thoughts that are so incredibly politically incorrect, you may find yourself with your mouth hanging open. At the end of the day, however, these are still people trying to find a comfortable place in a world that has become undone, and the town of Ebbing is just a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Now that I got all deep there, let’s talk about something more plain to see. Frances McDormand gives one of the best performances of her career that rivals her role in Fargo. She brash and mean but also sad and incredibly vulnerable. Equally fantastic is Woody Harrelson who has one of the most complex roles in the entire movie. I have to give a major shout out to Sam Rockwell, who continues to be one of my absolute favorite actors in the business. Give him any role, and I bet you he can nail it. This is all award caliber stuff here, folks, so keep your eyes peeled when the time comes. Speaking of that, Lucas Hedges returns after his work in Manchester by the Sea with a sort of similar role, but he still manages to knock it out of the park.

We’ve had a lot of great films this year. I always saw Wind River as my favorite with films like Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer coming in close behind. They still remain high on the list, but I don’t see how anything can beat Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This film is a genreless masterpiece that defies what you may come to expect and the physical reaction it left me with is one of a kind. Martin McDonagh has given us the best piece of his film making career and it’s something that has been firmly on my mind since the day I saw it. Whatever you do, do NOT miss out on this movie.

Final Grade: A+

War for the Planet of the Apes – Review

19 Jul

When Rise of the Planet of the Apes first came out in 2011, I didn’t really think anything of it. It took me a little while to finally get around to watching it and when I did, I was floored. The action, the story, and the superb special effects were movie magic at its purest. In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released and improved on everything that was established in the first film. I thought that entry couldn’t be beaten, but here we are in 2017 with the third, and final, film in the trilogy called War for the Planet of the Apes. I am kind of sad to see this trilogy ending, but it’s remained a solid example of blockbuster film making and this latest entry may be the best of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy.

Years after the Simian Flu infected and wiped out a large portion of humanity, the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) struggle to survive in the woods that provide limited isolation from vengeful human survivors. After their camp is attacked by a military faction called Alpha-Omega, Caesar decides it’s time to move camp for good, but disaster soon strikes which escalates the need to move but also ignites a vengeful spirit hidden deep within Caesar. Along with his trusted friends Maurice (Karin Konoval), Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and Rocket (Terry Notary), the ape leader sets out to find the base where Alpha-Omega is located. The group finally arrives and sees that AO, along with its vicious leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), has taken the other apes captive and are forcing them to build a wall to protect Alpha-Omega from arriving military forces. As Caesar comes face to face with an enemy like this that he has yet to encounter, he must look at his actions and the needs of his clan to determine how to proceed and get everyone to safety once and for all.

The first thing I have to talk about with this movie is the special effects. I honestly believe that these new Planet of the Apes movies are the shining example of how to use motion capture and computer generated effects to tell a story and make a movie feel more complete. Remember the old Planet of the Apes films and the costumes that were used for the apes. Looking back on them they look kind of odd, and this coming from someone who adores the original series, even at its cheesiest. The motion capture effects for Caesar and the rest of the apes instill them with a level of reality that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise, and I can say this for every film in this trilogy. There are a few close up where the eyes of these apes look so real that it’s hard to believe they just don’t have actual apes playing these roles. While I’m on this topic, can Andy Serkis just get an Oscar already. The emotions and movements of Caesar are all Serkis and I feel like he doesn’t get the praise that he has deserved for years.

With this being the final film of the trilogy, I expected this to be the largest and most epic in terms of scale. This really isn’t the case. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a huge finale on the Golden Gate Bridge, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has Koba and his followers attacking the humans in an all out battle, but War for the Planet of the Apes has a climax that is relatively smaller in comparison. This doesn’t make it more intense, however. When the major conflict of the film is finally addressed, which is the tension between Caesar and the Colonel, it’s a devastating scene that completely reinforces the themes that this movie is presenting and the moral strength and beliefs of the characters. There is a lot less action here, but Caesar’s war to free his apes and lead them to freedom is a continuing struggle that will leave your eyes glued to the screen for the nearly two and a half hour long runtime. There can be a lot of adjectives used to describe this movie, but boring would not be one of them.

The story to this film isn’t just a leave your brain at the door kind of narrative. In fact, I feel like I need to watch this movie again to fully see everything this movie had to offer. From beginning to end, there’s Biblical symbolism sprinkled throughout which can be both obvious and subtle. While there’s also clear hero and villains in this movie, writer/director Matt Reeves is interested in also showing the flaws of both. Caesar starts to see a lot of Koba in himself which frightens him, and the Colonel has motivations to do what he does other than just pure evil and sadism. This makes the story and the outcome feel heavier and puts it a step above the average summer blockbuster. I will say, there are a few moments of this movie where the suspension of disbelief is taken to the most extreme. One scene in particular actually pulled me out of the cinematic trance I was in and prompted me to turn to my friend, who was equally confused, and just ask why the film makers would make this choice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the strongest summer blockbusters to come out in quite a while and is certainly the strongest film in this new Planet of the Apes trilogy. It explores themes of leadership and morality in such deep ways while also telling a science fiction/fantasy story of highly intelligent apes fighting for survival. With a story like that successfully tackling themes that deep, you know this film has to be something special. It also works as an intense action/adventure film that has plenty of exciting moments to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. One more time for the people in the back, GIVE ANDY SERKIS AN OSCAR. In all seriousness though, War for the Planet of the Apes is an excellent film, and this entire trilogy shouldn’t be missed out on.

Final Grade: A

The Thin Red Line – Review

12 May

Terrence Malick is a very strange Hollywood entity that’s made not that many films over the course of over 40 years. His first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were met with huge success. After these two achievements, Malick disappeared off the face of the earth until 1998 when he released his World War II epic The Thin Red Line. This is around the same time that Spielberg released what I consider to be the best war movie ever made, Saving Private Ryan, but there are people who believe that Malick’s film is right up there with it. While I will say that it is one of the most memorable and well made war films to come out of Hollywood, it may also be one of the weirdest.

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After being picked up on an island in the South Pacific after going AWOL, Pvt. Robert Witt (Jim Caviezel) is chewed out by Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) and sent to Guadalcanal to be a part of a siege to secure Henderson Field from the Japanese. While on the island, the mass of soldiers have to secure Hill 210, which causes devastating casualties for the American forces. As the battle rages on and the days begin to pass by even slower, every soldier looks death in the eye through the sights of their guns and has to come to terms with the life that he’s led, the inevitable future that lays ahead,  and the possibility that they may never return home to the world that they know and have created for themselves.

The Thin Red Line is an outstanding example of a war movie, and I’m not sure how many people would deny that. While many war films deal with the European front, this movie deals with the battle that was raging on in the Pacific, specifically on Guadalcanal. This movie takes a really long time to get started, but when the battle finally gets going it doesn’t let up for a really long time. The original cut of this movie goes on for a little over 5 hours, and this is a rare time where I’d actually love to see the full 5 hour version because the 3 hour one that we have is so enthralling I feel like I need to see more. The combat is so intense and realistic that I began feeling anxious for the soldiers onscreen, even though I knew well enough that it was a movie. Not only is this a very intense movie, but the scenes of battle are shot in the most intricate and beautiful of ways. The camera sweeps over the battlefield in such a fashion that I can’t say I ever saw before. That is where Malick’s vision truly shines, and it’s almost blinding.

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So the battle scenes are all excellent and beautifully shot, but also the quieter scenes are shot in such a way that we see all of the beauty of nature that stands idly by as men wage their wars. It’s a pretty strong antiwar message done well, but things do tend to get a little weird. There are parts throughout the movie where the characters give these long winded soliloquies about the turmoil that they face everyday and the toll it’s taking on their lives and their beliefs. Seriously, this movie would gain a lot of points if those voice overs were taken out completely. It’s melodramatic and distracting because people simply don’t talk like that, especially when it’s already been established that it’s definitely not how that character talks normally. It’s just way too over the top, but that’s really my only complaint with this movie.

The Thin Red Line has a very odd story behind the making of it that makes it something of a Frankenstein monster masterpiece. Malick is known for taking an absurd amount of time to edit his movies, and this is a clear example of how far he’ll go to ensure he gets the picture he wants. Adrian Brody’s character went from being a lead to a secondary character who barely even speaks. The opposite goes for Caviezel, who’s character became the main focus of the story. The cast of actors in this movie is huge, but a lot of them end up being only cameos. Like I said, this movie was originally 5 hours long, so a  lot of their screen time got cut. Still, Malick knew what he wanted and the final product is great.

Plain and simply, The Thin Red Line is one of the best war movies ever made. There’s been countless, both old and new, but this movie has a certain beauty to it that Terrence Malick is known for capturing. That’s what really makes it stand out. Unfortunately, the film does lose points for the weird voice overs that more than border on the pretentious side. While that is a flaw, the rest of the movie is an epic masterwork of human drama and war.

Triple 9 – Review

15 Mar

In my opinion, John Hillcoat is a film maker who’s movies will get me excited no matter what. I haven’t seen all of his movies, like The Road, but his other films like The Proposition and Lawless are genre bending punches to the throat full of great acting, direction, and performances. He’s very well known for his collaborations with Nick Cave as screenwriter and composer, but with his newest film, Triple 9, Nick Cave is nowhere to be seen. That didn’t change the fact that I was excited for this movie and while the reviews have been very mixed, I thought this was a pretty badass flick.

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Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his band of thieves, including two Atlanta police officers Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.), are under the strict employ of a Russian mob boss’ wife, Irina (Kate Winslet). After pulling off a major heist for Irina, she still demands that Atwood and his gang pull off a much more complicated one: robbing a highly secured government building of all the files on her husband. In order to do this, it is suggested that the crew initiate a triple 9, which is a code for an officer down, across town so the building will be a free for all. Opportunity knocks when Marcus gets a new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a clean cop only out to do the right thing. As the police’s investigation of this gang gets them closer to the truth, Atwood feels rushed to get the job done, which could spell doom for the whole crew.

First off, I have to say that one of the first things that piqued my interest in this movie was the cast. Other than the actors I already named in the summary, this film also boasts the talents of Woody Harrelson, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, and Aaron Paul. It’s really an insane cast that all do their jobs really well. Casey Affleck continues to be one of my favorite actors working in movies while Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr. showed a level of skill I haven’t seen in them before. Ensemble films like this don’t always work because there isn’t enough personality between the characters to differentiate them from the rest. Luckily, that was not the case with the cast in Triple 9. They were all great to watch.

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Probably the only fault I can give this movie is how complicated it gets, even though this is a movie that doesn’t really need to be complicated. There is such a huge cast of characters and each of them seem to be doing ten different things. It’s ok for some of them to just remain side characters, but each one has a different arc that they’re trying to get through. This still doesn’t really hurt the movie for me, though. While I was trying to figure out what everyone was doing, I was marveling at the urban war zone that Hillcoat and screenwriter Matt Cook have created. It’s a landscape where everyone is your enemy and your friends have something to hide. This made for a very paranoid fueled heist thriller.

When I say that Triple 9 had some of the best action set pieces I’ve seen in a while, I mean that sincerely. Right from the get go there’s a robbery and a car chase on the freeway that should be remembered way down the line. Another great scene is a police raid on an apartment building shot mostly in tracking shots like we are part of the squad. There is a lot of down time in this film, but it never got boring for me, especially since right around the corner there was another action packed scene that was really well shot and paced. That’s an art all unto itself.

Based on all the reviews I’ve been seeing, people either love Triple 9 or they hate it. I don’t know if I can say I loved it, but it was definitely a really cool movie. It does get overly complicated at times, but the strong cast and the intense action sequences and urban environment really pulls it all together very well. After seeing Triple 9, I’m reminded once again why John Hillcoat is one of those film makers that gets me excited about movies. This one is worth a watch.

Rampart – Review

17 Dec

Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.

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The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.

I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.

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James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.

Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.

I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.

Seven Psychopaths – Review

23 Nov

In 2008, writer and director Martin McDonagh graced the world with one of the most original and hilarious dark comedies ever to be produced, In Bruges. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for its writing, and rightly so. The question was: Could McDonagh’s next movie support itself under the weight of In Bruges? The answer to that question came in 2012 with Seven Psychopaths. I’m not going to say that this movie surpasses or comes to close to the material that he struck gold with before, but it is a worthy and still darkly hilarious piece of work that’s jam packed with gallows humor, in jokes, and violence. How could I not like this movie?

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Marty Farnanan (Colin Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter and full time alcoholic who can’t seem to get any inspiration for his newest screenplay titled Seven Psychopaths. His best friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), who runs dog-napping operation, thinks he can help by placing an ad in the newspaper, asking “psychopaths” to contact Marty and tell him their stories. Meanwhile, Billy and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) end up biting off more than they can chew when they dognap a Shih Tzu that belongs to the notoriously violent criminal, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who begins gunning down anyone who gets in the way of him retrieving his precious puppy. Marty, Billy, and Hans have to team up to protect themselves from Charlie’s rampage, while possibly getting some inspiration for Marty’s screenplay.

At its core, Seven Psychopaths succeeds at taking the cliches of the action/crime genre, and totally flipping the conventions on their heads while at the same time honoring them as timely traditions. The line that really hammers this home is when Billy points out that an area they are driving by is the “perfect place for the final shootout.” It’s no surprise that this area comes back again at a pivotal point of the film. Now, calling this film “meta” wouldn’t be completely accurate, but it kinda sorta is. Billy is just such a fascinating character because he’s the only person in the movie that seems to be in on the joke, almost as if he’s aware that he’s just a player in someone else’s movie and he wants to follow the proper steps to the proper climactic scene. It’s a brilliant way to write a character, and may be one of the best characterizations I’ve seen in a long time.

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So as hilarious as this movie is, there is still a big problem that I have with it that makes it come up short in terms of achieving the success that In Bruges did. Now, it’s pretty awesome that Tom Waits has a part in this movie. He is a legend in the music world after all and has a really hardcore following. Believe me, I know some people that can’t stop talking about him. That being said, he doesn’t need to be in this movie. It really doesn’t make sense that he is. The scene that he’s in, as smartly written as it is, is pointless and ridiculously long. His character is really of no importance to the story, so why spend so much time on him? Was it just to have him in the movie. This isn’t the only time the movie goes off an a ridiculous tangent, but it is the most overdone and pointless ones in the movie. If this scene was cut altogether, the movie probably would have felt a lot smoother than it did.

But still, this movie is a refreshing breath of noxious fumes. There’s no doubt that Seven Psychopaths is a comedy, but I’d be damned if i didn’t say this movie didn’t try to offend, and I write that with a smile on my face. The language is as cut throat as the violence is, but the way the violence and language is presented fills me with glee. It’s excessive in that way that only the most potent dark comedies are, made by people that really understand the point of gallows humor. This isn’t a tame movie in the least, and it even gets pretty dramatic at times, but the comedy is consistent in a way that the movie’s narrative is not, so at least we have loads of laughs to get us through the unnecessary scenes.

Seven Psychopaths is a riot in every sense of the word. It’s violent, kinetic, hilarious, and oddly sentimental. It’s one of those movies that pays its respects to other movies, while remaining original in just about every aspect. Think of it as a really clever inside joke that doesn’t get old. While the humor may be a bit dark for some people’s standards, it is still a well acted, well written, and well produced film. It doesn’t quite reach the level of greatness as Martin McDonagh’s first film, but it makes me excited for whatever work he releases in the future.

Bunraku – Review

19 Dec

Wow. This one is really something. I’ve seen Sin City and Renaissance, both of which focus heavily on the visual style. Even with these two filmic experiences on the table, I can still say that I’ve never seen a film quite like Bunraku. What we have here is a mix of martial arts, westerns, samurai drama, graphic novels, and dystopian science fiction. Somehow when all of these genres are put in a blender, the result is Bunraku.

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After a global war, humanity built itself up back from the rubble and put a ban on all firearms. Now the police are all armed with swords and criminal bosses have taken over cities. The most brutal and powerful is Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), who has yet to be defeated by any other boss or their armies. Enter a mysterious Drifter (Josh Hartnett) and Yoshi (Gackt), a lone samurai on a quest. Both of these men have separate missions, but a common enemy: Nicola. With the wisdom of a Bartender (Woody Harrelson), these men join forces to fight through Nicola’s guards, including the skilled Killer Number Two (Kevin McKidd), to end his reign of terror.

The story here is pretty cut and dry. Nothing too deep about it and we’ve all seen it a million times before. My mind kept going back to Akira Kurosawa’s film, Yojimbo, because of the whole drifter without a name setting out to defeat an enemy controlling a fearful town. It’s pretty much the same story, just said a little differently. In this regard, the script is weak, from the rehashed story to the characters which really aren’t anything special. I will say that Killer Number Two is really awesome though.

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Even though the story and the characters weren’t anything special, I was never bored with this movie. There was something so genuine about the way it was being told. You can see that the writer/director, Guy Moshe,  just really loves the movies and making them as well. The effects for the backgrounds and other sets are incredible, from the almost cardboard like main street to the insanity colorful insanity of a club that seems to only play traditional Russian music. It’s times like these that I really loved to see the scenes play out and take in all the sights and sounds, the music and the color. It’s just a shame I never got too involved in the plot.

It’s really the way this movie was made that saved it for me. If it didn’t have the extra flair, it would fail to impress me. My favorite scene is a fight that starts on a rooftop and follows Josh Hartnett down the steps. The way it’s done however, is like there is no 4th wall to the building, and the camera cranes down with Hartnett’s movements. This is very reminiscent of old Nintendo side scrollers, even complete with coin sounds in the score that accompanied the scene.

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I really shouldn’t have like Bunraku. The story is unoriginal, the acting is bland, and the choreography isn’t all that great. I just couldn’t help myself. I got lost in the whole atmosphere of the movie. I will say that it’s all about style over substance in Bunraku, but I really enjoyed the style. As an objective critic, I’d say that this is a messy movie that is hardly worth anyone’s time. As a subjective critic, I would urge anyone to see it and try to enjoy and appreciate the work and imagination that goes with the style. Objectively bad, subjectively great.

TransSiberian – Review

8 Aug

I’ve had a few lame vacations, but none of them can compare to the nightmare that the couple in TransSiberian have to endure. The worst part is is that it is all because of their own mistakes and the fact that bad people possibly outweigh the good. This is an intriguing  and tight thriller that requires one viewing, but deserves multiple.

 

Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are an American couple who are traveling from Beijing to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway. Along their travels they meet another couple: Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). There seems to be more lurking beneath the surface of these two, and when a Russian narcotics officer, Ilya Grinko (Sir Ben Kingsley) gets thrown into the mix a supposedly innocent trip turns into a violent game of cat and mouse filled with murder and deception.

As I was watching this movie, my mind kept going to Alfred Hitchcock’s film Strangers on a Train. That is because TransSiberian hearkens back to the golden age of thrillers before high tech espionage and intense car chases became the norm in movies of this genre. The thrills come from the characters, their decisions, and the consequences of these decision. I always found the volatile nature of humans and their extreme drive for self preservation to be more interesting than any CGI-fest or high octane action thriller.

The setting of this movie is almost as dangerous as the characters themselves. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the foreboding Russian tundra is just as much a character as Roy and Jessie. Not only the cold landscapes, but the broken down interiors, minus the inside of the train, just scream tetanus. It couldn’t have been a better setting for a movie such as this.

Thematically, TransSiberian explores the snowball effect of lies and the amount of trust that we should put in other people. All of the trouble caused in this movie stems from these two themes. Another interesting theme of the movie is that of the Russian legal system especially in poverty stricken areas and against foreigners. I was on a message board and there was a post that claimed this movie was strictly anti-Russian propaganda. Another poster argued that they were actually from Russia, and this film is an accurate depiction of the problems the country is facing. Kingsley’s character has an interesting dialogue on the differences between Soviet Russia and modern day Russia. He pretty much says that things have changed, but not necessarily for the better.

 

So the themes, characters, and setting are what really make this movie thrilling. I have a gripe about the story, however. I understand that, without giving too much away, a certain character is faced with a massive problem that is only made worse by lying, even though telling the truth probably would have made things go a little smoother. I can’t speak for the characters or what others would do in this situation. I’m not even sure about what I would do. Let’s just say there were times where I wanted to knock some sense into this character.

TransSiberian is a gripping thriller that would make any Hitchcock fan proud. There isn’t wall to wall action, steamy sex, or death defying stunts. What we have is an intelligent and well crafted thriller that is supported by its aesthetics and its characters and how the actors portrayed them. I didn’t know much about this movie when I watched it, but when it ended I felt fulfilled and ready to share it with other people.

 

The Messenger – Review

18 May

As war and turmoil rages on in the Middle East, smaller and more personal battles continue on the home front as families are torn apart by the worst news possible. Hearing that a loved one has died one the battlefield is terribly difficult to hear, and this drama is wonderfully captured in The Messenger, with a few dramatic curve balls thrown in.

Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a war hero who has been assigned with a job that he is not particularly happy about. Along with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), he is given the task to notify families about their loved ones who have been killed in action. One particular widow (Samantha Morton) draws Montgomery close into her personal life, and he finds himself slowly falling for her, which is strictly against protocol.

This summary doesn’t really do this film justice, since its more of a character study than a traditional story driven narrative. At the end of The Messenger, nothing much has really changed. The war still goes on and people are still dying, but the characters in the film have progressed even if it is only slightly. That’s what is the true strength of the movie. The audience is meant to care more about the characters than what the story is. If one was to focus just on the story, the film would probably feel pretty hollow and boring, which it is not.

The screenplay for The Messenger is really marvelous with true to life dialogue that is never melodramatic and was nominated for an Academy Award for best Original Screenplay. There are a few lines that seem out of place like calling kids “green with envy” or some forced “good bye(s).” Other than that every line is appropriate. There is even a really good monologue said by Ben Foster towards the end of the movie that never sounds forced. The handheld camera work is also subtly fantastic at giving the film a more realistic feel. One shot in particular is eight minutes long and full of dramatic and emotional change.

Seeing Ben Foster in a role where he doesn’t have to shoot or hit anyone was a nice change. It’s been established with movies like 3:10 to Yuma and The Mechanic that he can play a tough talking badass just fine, but now it is known that he is perfectly capable of playing a deep character who makes a great change throughout a movie. Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton are also above average which also earned Harrelson an Academy Award nomination.

The Messenger came out the same year as The Hurt Locker, which is also about the tragedies surrounding the war in Iraq. Although the same themes are explored, they are done so in polar opposite ways. Deciding which film is more effective would be a very difficult task. Both do a great job, but I felt more impacted by the dialogue in The Messenger than the often flashy and violent material in The Hurt Locker, but this could just be because The Messenger is fresh in my mind.

This was a quietly intense and emotional film that strikes many different cords. I’d like to see The Messenger defined as a classic in a number of years because of its presentation. I really enjoyed this movie a lot, and would recommend it to anyone.

A Scanner Darkly – Review

14 May

Living in a world where our every move could be closely monitored by the government without our knowing is a terrifying concept. For all we know, this may be happening already. I could be under surveillance as I sit here writing this review. Then again, maybe I’m just being paranoid; moreover, this paranoia is the essence of A Scanner Darkly.

Seven years into the future, nothing is secret and everything is questionable. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is a police officer working deeply undercover amongst a group of junkies addicted to a new drug, Substance D. These junkies consist of the clever and possibly homicidal Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), the spaced out loser Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), the paranoid Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), and the dealer of the group Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Soon enough, due to a suit that hides the officers identity while at the precinct, Arctor is assigned to spy on himself, and deal with the junkie turned informant, Barris. As this vicious conundrum of identity and trust keeps unraveling, Arctor soon beings to lose control of who he is due to “cerebral cross chatter” and the other effects of Substance D.

The initial main drawing point of A Scanner Darkly is the bizarre and intriguingly surreal animation. After the film had been shot it was than edited over a period of 15 months using Rotoshop, which the director, Richard Linklater, had used in a previous film, Waking Life. This stunning use of animation gives the film an other worldly feel that I’ve never experienced before with a movie. It was realistic, than at the same time, was artificial.

With films like Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, the theme of drug addiction and withdrawal is not new. What A Scanner Darkly does differently is explore this theme with a deeper level of subtlety. The film doesn’t use eerie music or impressive camera techniques to make the viewer uncomfortable. The Rotoshop animation helps, but what I feel is the driving force of paranoia is the way the story is told. Up until the very end, the viewer has very vague impressions of what is real and what is not. The story is expertly told from both the sides of the police and the junkies, so when these worlds collide, it’s enough to make your brain split down the middle.

This story is definitely classified as science fiction, but a lot of what occurs in the film is funny. Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane are fantastic at playing the three most paranoid characters I may have ever seen. The way these characters handle themselves using the backwards logic of drug use is very entertaining, yet in no way condones the use of drugs.

The government in this semi-futuristic society only adds to the paranoia backing up the film. Sure, the characters are nervous, but shouldn’t we be just as nervous? I can honestly say that I have no idea just how deep the government, the FBI, the CIA, etc. can probe into the lives of everyday citizens. I wouldn’t call my uncertainty fear, but I would say that there is a good chance that we very well may be watched by “Big Brother” sometime in the near future.

I love how everything about A Scanner Darkly relates back to paranoia. The psychology behind Arctor, the drug abuse, and the overpowering government are incredibly fascinating.  As a film, A Scanner Darkly succeeds in making the audience feel strange and nervous, all while telling an intricate narrative. I’m definitely interested in going out and finding my own copy of Philip K. Dick’s original novel, which this story is based on, and seeing how Dick tells the story. For now though, I highly recommend A Scanner Darkly. It is a fantastic film.