Monday, April 15, 2013

"The Place Beyond the Pines"

My good friend from high school Tyler Swanson once said his favorite part of a movie was the beginning. I always thought that was a funny point to make, but there's truth to it. A good beginning to a movie captures your attention and makes you want to closely follow along for the rest of the story.

Case in point: The Place Beyond the Pines begins with a shirtless ripped Ryan Gosling covered in tattoos methodically flipping a butterfly knife in a dark trailer, before suiting up in a red leather jacket and walking through a Carnival into a tent with a screaming crowd, then boarding a dirt bike and riding into a steel cage circling two other riders. All in one take! It's a great start to a movie that ends up being a long three part saga, and a test of patience.

Gosling plays Luke, a soft-spoken bad-ass motorcycle driver who wants to quit the circus and settle down in Schenectady, New York after he learns he has a chance at starting a family with his old flame Romina, played by Cubana Eva Mendes. He meets Robin, a gritty mechanic played by Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn, who offers him menial work, and together the two eventually decide on the age-old get-rich-quick scheme of robbing banks. Luke is a natural, and wants to up the ante with hopes of being a good provider, but Robin warns "If you ride like lightening, you're going to crash like thunder," which sounds like an awesome line, until you realize it's a rip off of Burgess Meredith's line from Rocky, substituting "eat" and "crap."

The movie shifts gears when rookie cop and new dad Avery, played by Bradley Cooper, gets on the chase. We follow Avery's story, as he becomes embroiled in Sche'dy PD corruption, and is forced to make some tough moral decisions. Ray Liotta enters at this point, playing an oafish crooked cop (Interestingly, both Liotta and Mendelsohn were also recently together in the less good Killing Them Softly playing equally slimy characters. It must be fun playing these parts.)

The third act takes place 15 years later and follows the next generation of Schenectadians (is that a word?) I'll spare the details to avoid spoilers, but also because I didn't quite know what to make of it.

The Place Beyond the Pines is written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, who also wrote and directed Blue Valentine, a powerful movie about the life and death of a modern relationship, which also starred Gosling (I would recommend Blue Valentine, except that the last time I did it was for a nurse I worked with and she came back to me complaining about how she just "couldn't handle it.") Anyway, there is plenty to like about this movie. Gosling and Mendelsohn are really great, Mendes too. The movie is shot on 35 mm, which after seeing so many movies filmed digitally, starts to seem grainy and Instagram-esque under the low light of upstate New York. There are many interesting themes regarding the role of fatherhood, the vicious cycle of crime and man's propensity towards risk and self-destruction. However, the messages are muddled at best. Also, though the movie feels like a three part Iñárritu film, the narrative is linear and after two and a half hours the story starts running low on gas. Tyler was right, beginnings are great. But there's something to be said for a timely ending.

Speaking of endings, I've been writing this movie blog for nearly four years, and it's been fun. But I'm going to have to hang it up for a while, since my wife's due date is almost here and her bag of waters is about to burst. Why do they call it "bag of waters," plural, and not just "bag of water"?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Rust and Bone review, plus my list of Top 5 Suprisingly Good Lowbrow Movies of 2012

De Rouille et D'os (Rust and Bone) is a new French film directed by Jacques Audiard, who previously directed the intense prison mafia movie Un prophete (A Prophet). If you haven't seen or heard of Rust and Bone, it's because it has been flying low under the radar. It played at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Film Festival last month; when I saw it it was playing in San Diego in just one theater. Not only is it foreign, but it also lacks a commercial appeal, which is not to say that it should be dismissed.

Rust and Bone takes place in Antibes in southern France, where Ali (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) and his young son have moved in with his sister in search of work. Ali is a very muscular guy and equally self-centered and dim, though sincere. He finds work as a bouncer at a club, but his dream job is to be a professional mixed martial arts fighter. One evening at the club he meets Stephanie (played by Marion Cottilard) who looks like a party girl but turns out to be, of all things, an orca trainer at the French version of Sea World. She suffers a life-altering accident on the job, and later seeks some sort of companionship in Ali. What proceeds is a relationship that would certainly be defined as "it's complicated" on Facebook, as Ali enters a dangerous underworld of MMA fighting and Stephanie joins along for the ride.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines "melodrama" as "a work of extravagant theatricality." Rust and Bone I think is definitely melodramatic, with quite exaggerated events. But both Cottilard and Schoenaerts give very powerful performances which makes the movie quite engaging, even if you are tortured by Ali's dumb ass or Stephanie's foolish choice to be with him. Visually the movie is very beautiful, with lots of sun flares, glistening waves and leaping killer whales. Of course the French show their mastery of romantic scenes in this movie.

Overall, Rust and Bone is like foie gras, complex and challenging but ultimately gratifying and it stays with you for a while. However, you may prefer pizza, and since it is the end of the year, I've posted below my Top 5 Surprisingly Good Lowbrow Movies of 2012.

1) 21 Jump Street: OMG! LMFAO! Funniest movie I saw this year. Completely ridiculous.

2) End of Watch: The badass movie of the year (though I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty yet.) Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are both awesome, playing brave yet down-to-earth LAPD cops in South LA. The suspenseful action scenes will seriously raise your blood pressure. The found-footage format tries to offer a realistic perspective and it sort of works, but it's Gyllenhaal and Peña's relationship that really brings the movie to life.

3) Seven Psychopaths: The latest dark comedy from director Martin McDonagh, who previously made In Bruges. Great script about a struggling writer, his dognapping friends and an assortment of psycopaths. Very witty dialogue. All-star cast including Colin Ferrel, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and the (hopefully no longer) underrated Sam Rockwell.

4) The Cabin in the Woods: Definitely the biggest surprise of the year. This movie was not anything at all what I thought it would be. Unfortunately I can't say anything about it, except that if you hate horror movies you might actually especially enjoy this one. Also, the opening title sequence was maybe the best ever done.

5) Chronicle: If you were a teenager with newly discovered superhuman telekinetic powers, would you use it to fight crime, or prank people and record it all on digital video? Probably the later. The movie portrays superhero powers in a real world environment using the increasingly popular found-footage format, and is thus refreshingly different from the huge assortment of comic book superhero movies. The learning-to-fly scene was every kid's dream.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

5 great scary movies you might have missed

It's almost Halloween/Dia de los Muertos, so everyone is in the mood for some scary movies. But you've already seen The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs, and everything else in the horror movie section looks lame (ex: The Devil Inside.) I admit the horror genre is kind of weak, a lot stinkers out there. So here are some suggestions for some scary movies you might have missed.

1) Lat den ratte komme in (Let the Right One In): Since this is maybe the best horror movie of the 21st century and probably the best vampire movie since The Lost Boys, perhaps you didn't miss it. This 2008 Norwegian film tells the story of a friendship between a boy and a girl, who happens to be a vampire. It's a legitimately scary movie that also has heart. Plus an unforgettable scene with cats.

2) The Thing: This 1982 John Carpenter film has it all: aliens, Antarctica, flame throwers, Wilford Brimley. It's a remake of the 1950s movie The Thing From Another World, which was adapted from the story "Who Goes There?", and later remade in 2011 as a prequel! In this movie, scientists in Antarctica stumble upon an alien life form that can change shape. Stranded in this frozen tundra they must figure out who is human and who is alien and fight to stay alive. Not exactly pee-your-pants scary but still suspenseful with some gross/campy effects.

3) Shallow Grave: I wouldn't call this a horror film, but definitely a scary movie. It's actually Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor's first movie, who later teamed up for the classic Trainspotting, and Boyle went on to do the awesome awesome 28 Days Later, plus of course Slumdog Millionaire and more recently the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies. In this 1994 movie, three English flatmates find themselves stuck with a corpse and a load of cash. It's a familiar formula but still has some good twists and those moments that make you jump out of your seat.

4) Dead Alive: OMG this movie is just so great on so many levels. It's so very gory and disgusting and hilarious and extreme that is just has to be seen. Dead Alive is actually one of Peter Jackson's first movies. He went on to make the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. This movie is set in New Zealand and is about a young man in love with a woman, but also must compete with the love and attention from his needy old mother, who gets bitten by a disgusting rat and becomes a decaying zombie! There is a scene at a park with a baby carriage that is incredibly funny, a goofy battle between a priest and zombies, and a lawnmower scene I promise you will never forget.

5) The Descent: This is a relatively straightforward scary movie with folks running away from monsters throughout. Two aspects make it interesting: nearly all-women cast, and most of the movie takes place UNDERGROUND. It feels very claustrophobic, which adds an extra dimension of fear for those of us who don't like being in tight spaces.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises. Or not.

Batman is my favorite comic book hero, I think because despite his character's great financial wealth, he still risks life and limb to help others. Bruce Wayne could easily rest comfortably in his fortunes, as most rich people do, and yet he feels compelled to personally battle the worst villains among us. However fictional the comic may be, the idea is very inspiring, and thus a powerful draw. Indeed, I could not wait to see The Dark Knight Rises. I went to the midnight screening at the AMC Loews Waterfront theatre in Pittsburgh, which was PACKED with young people dressed in Batman merch and homemade costumes. Many of the scenes in the movie were filmed in Pittsburgh, which created massive local enthusiasm. Simply put, there was great anticipation for this movie.

Still, I had skepticism that it would meet expectations, mainly because of what I consider to be the cinematic rule of 3's. If you look at any movie series, the third installment is usually the worst. Godfather part 3. Alien 3. Matrix Revolutions. Austin Powers in Goldmember. All blah. Granted, there are exceptions, like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But in general, I think what happens is the story loses steam. The first part is always new and exciting, and then the sequel tries hard to outdo the first. By the time you reach the third part, the spirit of the series is tired and worn out, like the last leg of a long race.

Christopher Nolan's reboot of the Batman series is a perfect example of this. In Batman Begins, we were given a cool fresh look at the origins of Batman. The sequel, The Dark Knight, had an unrelenting pace, as Batman fought with every last ounce of strength to catch an insane Joker and save his friends and Gotham City. And now, in The Dark Knight Rises, things slow down big time. [SPOILER ALERT]. The audience is sitting in excitement to see Batman, only to learn that he has retired?! And years have passed in the story's timeline? Talk about losing steam! We are introduced to a big and scary villain named Bane, whose brute strength and armed rebel fighters allow him to take control of a nuclear weapon and hold Gotham City hostage. But how much time is allowed its prisoners? 5 months! How's that for suspense?!

I'll also give The Dark Knight Rises demerits for the political message it conveys, which I believe run contrary to what Batman stands for. [SPOILER ALERT]. During the second act, the Gotham police force are led underground into a trap, thus plunging the city into presumed mob rule. Bane leads a sort of proletarian revolution, with the poor taking from the rich the wealth that has been denied them, and public executions of the aristocracy are held, much like the guillotines of the French Revolution. So when Batman comes to Gotham's rescue, though he defeats Bane and his minions and restores order, he in effect supports the inequalities that pervade the city. At a time when our nation is plagued by unprecedented inequality of income and opportunities, this idea is anathema.

Still, The Dark Knight Rises is an entertaining movie with impressive visual effects, surprising plot twists and strong acting performances by all, especially Michael Cain. But when heroes and their movies are held in such high regard, it's all the more disappointing when they miss the mark.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom rules

When you hear that Wes Anderson has a new movie coming out, what sort of things come to mind? What might you expect? Let's break it down by category.
Genre: Comedy.
Cast: Large and ecclectic.
Characters: Melancholy or exuberant.
Dialogue: Witty
Mood: Bittersweet
Soundtrack: British invasion rock, Mark Mothersbaugh.
Cinematography: Long tracking shots.
Editing: Slow motion.
Props: Artfully detailed.

The end result is a style of movie entirely unique and familiar. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many great directors from Woody Allen to Stanley Kubrick to Alfred Hitchcock have made excellent films that all had similar characteristics. But I think with Wes Anderson his movies share less variety, and after six films (seven if you count the short Hotel Chevalier) there's a risk of cliched predictability. Look at Kevin Smith, that man-child keeps remaking the same dick joke movies over and over!

Thankfully Anderson's newest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, feels fresh and thoroughly enjoyable, I think in large part due to the cute story of an innocent first love between two adorable (but not wretchedly so) adolescents. Also, the movie is set on a picturesque undeveloped island in New England during 1965, harkening back to simpler times when boy scouts were unpoliticized by homophobia and telecommunication relied on phone operators at switchboards. As for the soundtrack, I think Anderson breaks form here and features a lot of classical music, all quite beautiful.

Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzmann, both Anderson staples, appear in the movie and are mildly funny. The real stars are the children, who are just hilarious. Edward Norton and Bruce Willis give great supporting performances as earnestly dim authority figures. Harvey Keitel, who is never not awesome, makes a brief appearance, first as a quicky glimpsed photo in a scout magazine and then later as a supreme troop commander.

In summary, if you love Wes Anderson movies, check it out. And if you don't, well, this one might change that.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Favorite films of 2011

Another year has passed, so let's review. My favorite three:

1) Moneyball: Growing up, I loved baseball and I was a huge A's fan. Ricky Henderson, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were my heros. I collected and traded albums full of baseball cards; Topps came with stale and delicious chewing gum, while Upper Deck were high-end, glossy and valuable. The 1989 World Series A's vs Giants was so epic that the ground shook with a 6.9 earthquake. Of course the mighty A's swept the series. Then, in 1994, players went on strike, and all that love and enthusiasm died. I stopped collecting cards, stopped watching games, stopped rooting for the A's, or any team. In my mind, if the players cared more about money than playing ball, why should I care to watch them play at all?
So perhaps it is because of this background that I loved the film Moneyball so much. The movie, based on Michael Lewis' book of the same title, tells the true story of the 2002 Oakland A's and the supposed re-invention of baseball. Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, is general manager of the team, whose glory days from '89 have long since faded, and with them its coffers. Beane, with the help of nerdy assistant Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill, must seek talent for cheap in order to create a winning team. But instead of using traditional tactics based on appearances, they use scientific metrics to identify undervalued yet skilled ball players. In medicine, we call this "evidence based practice" as opposed to "anecdotal bullshit." Moneyball essentially turns the role of money in baseball on its head, and for me, reawakened a love for the game. All this, in addition to a pitch-perfect script by Aaron Sorkin (who I think may be a genius writer) and awesome performances by Pitt and Hill, made this my favorite movie of 2011.

2) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: This spy film, based on the book by John le Carre, is a fictional story of a mole hunt at the highest levels of British intelligence during the Cold War. Now there is another spy movie in theatres, the 4th Mission: Impossible movie, which I haven't seen. According to the billboards, Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for some reason, and I'm sure it's all very enthralling. TTSS actually takes place in reality, so no, Gary Oldman doesn't climb Big Ben, though that would be pretty funny. Nevertheless, TTSS is incredibly suspenseful, a real palm-sweater. The movie captures the paranoia of the Cold War, a time when no one could be trusted and the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets loomed large. The movie features a brilliant British cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds (probably underused in this movie) and Benedict Cumberbatch, heretofore unknown to me but with a performance like this one and a name like that will surely go places. And keep an eye out at awards season for best costume, the suits in this movie are sharp.

3) Drive: See my previous review. This movie kicked a lot of ass.

In case this list seems excessively masculine, let it be known that probably #4 and #5 would be Jane Eyre and Bridesmaids, respectively. I just don't have the time right now to write about how great they are. :)
Finally, the fail of 2011.

1) Tree of Life: This movie was beautifully unwatchable, extremely disappointing. The premise of the film (I think there is one) is that the intimate drama of a white American nuclear family in the 50's in Texas is every bit as powerful and meaningful and sacred as the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Which may be true, I don't really know, but if it is then that's either incredibly profound or depressing. But, ugh, this movie, despite its breathtaking imagery/nature porn and graceful score, is made painful to sit through by its total absence of any narrative. It plays like a twisted music video mashup of a National Geographic documentary, the 50's sitcom Father Knows Best and one of my wife's Anthropologie catalogues set to a Bach symphony. If you're curious enough to see this movie, maybe try some mota beforehand.

2) Battle: Los Angeles: This movie looked like an exciting sci-fi romp through my new home town, with scenes of aliens storming Santa Monica beach where I go running on weekends. Which is all fun for a little while, but then actually gets boring. It turns out the movie I think is propaganda for recruitment to the Marines, as there is a ridiculous amount of attention to military detail, such as the names of weapons and tools used and war strategy etc.

Thanks for reading. Here's hoping 2012 is a good year at the movies. Can't wait for The Dark Knight Rises!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Drive." To the theater and see it now.

2011 has been a slow year for movies so far. It's already September and I've only been a few times, and the movies I did see were meh (X-men: First Class) or bleh (The Tree of Life). Seriously, don't get me started on The Tree of Life. Even Sean Penn, who starred in the movie, thought it sucked*.

Things did get interesting in May during the Cannes Film Festival, when a movie about a stunt driver/getaway driver starring Ryan Gosling received great acclaim and a Dane named Nicolas Winding Refn won best director for it. IMDB featured a short clip from the movie, and it looked great.

Drive, the aforementioned movie, finally opened last Friday and I went to see it with much enthusiasm. And it didn't disappoint. Drive is a gourmet action film, with surprising, intense, well-crafted scenes. The cast is near perfect. Gosling is captivating as a soft-spoken yet brutal and exact criminal, similar to Jean Reno's Leon in The Professional. Albert Brooks steals scenes as a witty but equally vicious boss. And Bryan Cranston's kindly inept character is endearing.

What makes Drive stand apart is its tone/pace/atmosphere. It feels like a mashup between the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City & Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. The soundtrack's 80s-synthesized songs, the text/font during opening credits, the horrific violence and suspenseful chases, all seem right out of GTA:VC. The movie's patient pace and laconic dialogue, all set by an unrelenting protagonist, as well as thin plot, resemble that of The Limey, and make the film all the more powerful. During a time when the movie theaters are filled with three-dimensions of superfluous cacophony, Drive demonstrates that less is more. Think Haagen Dazs.

That's it for now. The fall movie season looks promising, but I probably won't be back in theaters until after the pediatric board exam in October. Wish me luck!