Friday, September 11, 2009

Summer Movies : Looking Back

When the economy is bad, you can bet on movies as being the one thing that makes money. It's no surprise then that it was a big summer at the cinema.

The season's biggest money-maker was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the follow-up to the 2007 box office smash. This time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is off to college. His hopes of living a normal life are shattered when he discovers the "Matrix of Leadership," a powerful device used for destroying stars and worlds. Now the Decepticons are after him, and it's up to the Autobots to save his life and the world.

Transformers 2 is pretty much the same as the first movie, except even longer and, therefore, more boring. Besides some nifty special effects, Revenge of the Fallen is like a Decepticon; big and shiny but, in the end, soulless and empty.

Up was Pixar's latest fare. The tale of an old curmudgeon who ties balloons to his house and drifts away to the land of his dreams, Paradise Falls, dazzled critics and audiences alike. Like most of Pixar's films, Up has been hailed as an animated masterpiece. An early lock for a Best Animated Feature win at this year's Oscars, it's Pixar's second highest grossing film of all-time, just behind Finding Nemo.
It takes a really special film to make its audience tear up within the first ten minutes, but Up is a really special film. The characters, story and themes are really easy to get invested in. It's a great film that's sure to entertain kids as well as adults.

Unfortunately, the 3-D aspect of the film isn't so special. The gimmicky tool, which seems to have overtaken substance in favor of style in the case of so many animated features, is not even used to its full potential. Nothing seems to pop right out of the screen. One has to wonder if Pixar chose to make the film in 3-D just to keep up with the zeitgeist of multi-dimensional entertainment. The glasses are just an annoyance, and do little more than impair sight of the screen. There is always the option of seeing the film in 2-D. In fact, that would probably bring the film closer to perfection.

The latest "Harry Potter" film came as a welcome addition to the long-running (and huge grossing) family franchise. Whereas the last film in the series, The Order of the Phoenix, fell flat due to its lack of plot and focus on filler, The Half-Blood Prince finds Harry and the gang going on more fantastical adventures, and accomplishing tasks that feel like they'll actually mean something in the long run.

The Half-Blood Prince isn't the best in the series, however. Far from it. That title still belongs to 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. That film was the perfect blend of fantasy and reality; fantastical places, real characters. Of course, anyone who has seen the other films will need to see The Half-Blood Prince in order to be set up for the last two films in the series. It's a wonderful time at the movies; a little slice of magic any filmgoer would be doing themselves a disservice to miss.

The last huge film of the summer would have to be District 9, a part-mockumentary, part-action flick about what might happen if aliens came to Earth and lived in government-supervised slums in South Africa. A fascinating premise, and one that works about one-third of the time. That one-third comes at the beginning of the film. For that half-hour, District 9 is a masterpiece, a creative, brilliant study of human/alien interaction, and a biting metaphor for the rampantly hate-fueled race relations between South Africans and their government officials.

Then the film takes a turn for the worse. It turns itself into a run-of-the-mill action movie and never looks back. It starts to take itself less seriously, although that type of self-depreciation is unwarranted. It's an odd and unnatural change, and a shameful one for a film whose premise and first half hour are so intriguing.
With that being said, however, District 9 is an interesting sci-fi popcorn flick, though it could have been so much more.

Like always, there were some diamonds in the rough of the summer movie season. Here's to hoping the rest of the year shines a bit more.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Au Revoir Les Enfants could probably be considered among the best non-combat war films to ever be made. It is at once bleak and sad, yet at the same time hopeful, the latter from the friendship between the two main characters, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet (Gaspard Manesse and Raphael Fejto, respectivly, give two of the greatest performances by young people ever.)

Julien has recently returned to the all-male boarding school he attends when he meets a new student, Jean. Seemingly polar opposites, Julien an apathetic schoolyard tough and Jean a quiet bookworm, the two become friends after a game of treasure hunt in which they become lost in the woods. They are found and returned to school by two Nazis, who are unaware that Jean is secretly Jewish, in only one of the many tense scenes in the film.

And the intensity comes naturally. It is never forced. It comes from the plot, not overbearing music or shadowy camera work. Not to say those are necessarily bad tools for developing suspense, but with a film like Au Revoir Les Enfants, the tension doesn't call for anything other than what the story allows it.

This is the first Louis Malle film I've seen. Although I know who he is and that he's considered one of the finest filmmakers of all-time, I simply haven't gotten around to seeing his films. I certainly will now. My fellow Cineaste, in his review of the film, said, "Thank you, Ted ,for selecting this film, because it is certainly the greatest movie yet seen on The Cineastes," in reference to Edouard Hill, whose selection this film was. I would certainly agree with his statement.


This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Edouard Hill at Allan Gray's Imagination (

About Posts

Sorry that these posts have been so few and far between, but its been a bit crazy as of late. School just started up again and so its been a bit hectic, but if you'll just bear with me I'll start posting more and eventually try to get up to 4or 5 posts a month, about one a week is what I'm hoping for.

In the meantime, my Cineastes review for this month is coming up here in a bit (Au Revoir Les Enfants, sorry its late too), so please check that out. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Best Films of 2009 (So Far...)

I obviously haven't been able to catch every flick released thus far this year, but I have seen most of the major ones. Here are my five favorites, in ABC order:

Sacha Baron Cohen's controversial follow-up to Borat is even funnier and more subversive than its predecessor.

Drag Me To Hell
Everything you've heard about this movie is true. Drag Me To Hell is a return to form for Sam Raimi; it's funny, scary, and a helluva lot of fun.

Wrongfully bashed upon its release, Knowing is smart, dark, and boasts a few awe-inspiring F/X moments. It just came out on DVD, so you don't have a reason to avoid it anymore.

Two Lovers
James Gray (We Own the Night) has crafted a romantic, heart-breaking masterpiece with Two Lovers. Joaquin Phoenix has stated that this will be his last film. Let's hope not, though, because he gives a great performance here as a suicidal man caught in a love triangle with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vanessa Shaw.

Watchmen is one of the darkest superhero films I've seen. It's big and explosive, sure, but underneath all that it's unrelentingly bleak and intelligent. You can read my review of it elsewhere on this blog.

It's been a strong year for films so far. Let's hope it keeps up and surpasses last year's weak showing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Big Trouble In Little China

I was quite pleased to hear that The Cineastes would be reviewing Big Trouble In Little China this month. Not because I had seen it before, because I hadn't. The movie had been on my queue for a while, though. I was happy to review the film because I knew I would like it. I'm a sucker for cheesey, dumb, corny 80's flicks, and this one seemed to have it all.

Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a truck driver caught in the middle of 2,000-year old Chinese black-magic sorcerer's plan to kidnap and marry a girl with green eyes so he can become young again. That girl just so happens to be Jack's buddy's fiancee. So Jack and his friend, along with the lovely Kim Cattrall as lawyer Gracie Law (because why wouldn't that be her name) set out to rescue her.

This leads them to an underground world of ancient Chinese mysticism and monsters. They fight street gangs, wizards, demonic creatures, etc. The point of the film is fun, and Big Trouble succeeds. From the corny dialogue to the B-movie set pieces to the cheesey plot and characters, everything about the film is a barrel of monkeys.Kurt Russell is perfectly over-the-top as Jack Burton. Almost every line he utters is eminently quotable in its cheesiness.

Unfortunatly, though, the film is sometimes too dumb. Unlike some of director John Carpenter's other movies, Big Trouble In Little China doesn't really have any social value. They Live was about the economy at that time. Halloween was about young sexuality. Big Trouble is about...ancient Chinese secrets. The film exists for the purpose of having a good time at the theater.

And there's nothing wrong with that. You just probably won't remember much about it in a few weeks. But that's ok. Enjoy it while it lasts.


This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Crap Monster at YGG'noise (

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Last year, one of my most anticipated films was Steven Soderbergh's Che. Being a fan of Soderbergh, I was very interested in seeing what he would do with a biopic. Would he make it unconventional, and turn it in to one of his "stranger" indie flicks (Schizopolis, Bubble)? Or would he turn in a normal film and go for a large distribution (the Ocean's series, although none of his films are really "traditional.")

Considering Che's length (the film clocks in at around 4 hours) the latter seemed somewhat impossible, and the film's audience was shifted to the arthouse when it was picked up by IFC, one of the few distributors with any balls out there (it was, after all, the only one to consider Lars von Trier's Antichrist.)
But now that the film is on DVD, anyone can see it, not just those living in New York or LA. Che lands somewhere in the middle of Soderbergh's "weird" and "normal" films. It's the best film thus far to be made about Che Guavara. The first part of the film, The Argentine, shifts between Che's and Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution and their brief time in America. Part two, Guerilla, documents Che's involvement in the Bolivian Revolution. Both parts are essential to each other, and should be watched and considered as a whole, not two separate films.

Benicio del Toro had some early Oscar buzz for his portrayal of the revolutionary. He's magnificent in the title role, the rare performance that fully embodies such a well-known and polarizing figure. His performance, as well as Soderbergh's direction, are not biased in or out of favor with the man. The film remains neutral, unlike the living Che-boner The Motorcycle Diaries (which is actually a really good film.)

Unfortunately, del Toro's performance went unnoticed by the Academy when Che shot completely under the radar. If you've got 4 hours to spend, give Che a watch. But if not, at least check out The Girlfriend Experience. If you live in New York or LA, that is...

CHE : A-

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Gambler

"You're crazy!" says Axel Freed's girlfriend in one scene of The Gambler. "But I'm blessed," he responds. He is about to make a risky move in a high stakes game of blackjack. The tension builds. Sweat drips down Freed's brow. The dealer lays down the card and... 21. A lucky draw, something Freed isn't used to.

It's this attitude of needing risks to feel alive that has Axel Freed in over his head in debt, $44,000 to be exact. If he can't come up with the money soon, the dangerous loan sharks he's gotten himself entangled with might kill him, or worse go after his family.

James Caan plays Axel Freed, a troubled teacher and gambling addict in Karel Reisz's 1974 drama The Gambler. Caan appears in every scene, every frame almost, of the film. His performance is amazing and made even more so considering the fact that Caan was battling a cocaine addiction during shooting.

The film was one of the many forgotten gems of the New Hollywood era. Soon after the Hayes Code was dissolved, American filmgoers were eager for more raw films with tougher subject matter than they were used to. Films like Easy rider and Bonnie & Clyde satisfied their thirst, while many films, The Gambler included, got pushed aside in the process.

Karel Reisz, who also directed The French Lieutenant's Wife and the excellent Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, keeps a steady eye on Axel Freed. The film is dark and gritty, yet entertaining, and Caan's performance is eminently watchable.

The Gambler is a character study above all else. The battle against gambling Axel Freed deals with on-screen is mirrored by Caan's off-screen personal demons. Another sad case of art imitating life.

The fake character, however, doesn't really want to give up gambling. Although he acknowledges that it's a problem, he loves the risk. He only truly feels alive when his livlihood is at stake. He's not in it for the game. In his eyes, everything in life is a game. He gambles for the rush of it, just to feel something. He's willing to take the risk to get that rush, unfortunatly hurting everyone around him and the ones he loves in the process.


This month's CINEASTES review has been hosted by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema (