Sunday, September 27, 2009

Keepin' It Really Reel Award - September '09

I’m not the type of person who gets surprised easily. I tend to stand back from situations and analyze the people and events involved and try to make as objective a conclusion as possible. And since most people don’t change, or I’m just too young to have seen it, I’d say I have Ted Williams-ish reliability. But here I am to admit that I have made a mistake about one of America’s “it” ladies. No doubt she’s done amazing things the world over, but I was just never sold on her as a top shelf actor – or class-A beauty, but that’s neither here nor there. Angelina Jolie, I offer my apologies for doubting your acting chops. I don’t know why I thought I could disprove your talent especially since you come from a talented family. If this apology is not enough I’m sure I can think of something to make up for it. Ah, I’ve got it! How about the September 2009 Keepin’ It Really Reel Award? (Ms. Jolie was not available for comment).

I never outright said I hated her, but I did take a few cheap shots in one entry about female action heroes. But looking at it honestly, the movies were hokey and what was she supposed to do with a role like Lara Croft? Even an infant could see she was given the role solely because of her physical appearance, and while the people with a logical brain were obviously on a beer run, someone thought they had a hit movie on their hands. But redemption comes along but so often and for mine and Angeline’s relationship it came in the form of not one, but two movies I saw this month, A Mighty Heart and Changeling.

A Mighty Heart is the true story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s abduction as told through the eyes of his pregnant wife, Marianne Pearl. Sometimes it’s hard to say how you feel about a true story because the events are so traumatic, so powerful that the eyes of objectivity are blinded. But this is a movie when you have to sit through the anger, the heartbreak, and the frustration so that you can take away its lessons. And the only reason it works simultaneously as a form of entertainment and honor is because of Angelina Jolie’s performance. We first meet her as the patient, understanding, loving wife and mother-to-be that she is. But what follows is a world wind of a performance that knocks you off your feet and leaves you speechless. Even in the saddest or most uplifting of movies I never cry; this was not one of those times (I actually didn’t cry. I was close, but this statement is staying in for effect!). It’s a movie that is so heavy I can’t outright recommend it to people without the “approach with caution” disclaimer, but A Mighty Heart is one incredible film held up by the shoulders of Angelina Jolie. – 4 reels out of 5

And then there is Changeling; the true story of Christine Collins and her search for her son, Walter. The LAPD, in their attempts to save face and hide corruption, deliver to her a child that is not her son, and, in the craziest of true story twists, consult doctors and experts who deem Christine “mentally unstable” for not recognizing her own son! As my wife has said, “this is one of the best movies I hate.” What she means is that it’s just a tough pill to swallow; it’s never fun seeing kids disappear and having to go through the thought process of all the terrible things that could happen to them (see Gone Baby Gone). And that anger, disgust, and frustration is only heightened by the deliberate attempts of the LAPD to stymie Christine’s efforts of finding her real son. Think about it: being told you’re crazy by the people who know they made a mistake and whose job it is to protect you – that’s like being buried alive; there is no more claustrophobic feeling than that. But the reason we continue on the journey is because Angelina Jolie captivates us at every turn. Obviously we want to know what happened to Walter and what will happen to all those involved in this conspiracy, but the unease in our stomach is settled a bit by Jolie. Her performance is honest and visceral (I’m sure being a mother of 19 kids helps) and for that this pill goes down a bit easier…of course you’ll never take another dose. – 3 reels out of 5

There you have it. But is that enough to take home this month’s award? The reason Angelina Jolie deserves the award is because it’s clear that she makes movies she wants to make. She has an amazing talent and that shouldn’t be overlooked because of films like Tomb Raider or Wanted. Perhaps these movies allow her to do all the things she does in her real life as a just and honorable human being and ambassador to human rights and world heath. And those are the reasons that Angelina Jolie takes home September’s award – because all she knows how to do is Keep it Really Reel - on screen and off.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Sometimes things are so campy that we can’t help but love them. Other times their just excessively so that we’re turned off by the attempt to be something more important than just what it is – a bad movie. And then there are those in between: a motley crew of elements, ideas, themes that most people probably get fooled into thinking they have a great, poignant film on their hands when all they have is a mess. We don’t hate them, we don’t love them. We watch them and when the credits roll we walk out the same as when we went in just two hours older.

A perfect example of this is Teeth, a horroredy from writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein about the newest edition to Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” (click her to get real synopsis).
When it was released in 2007 I couldn’t get two feet without hearing praise for this movie. And it wasn’t the Williamsburg “Juno is the greatest movie ever!” hipster crowd that was saying this. I’m talking about legit critics on Reel Talk on NBC, Entertainment Weekly, etc. So I thought, “how could these good people steer me wrong?” Oh, my ignorance knows no bounds.

Look, I’m all for “different”, “quirky”, or whatever, but let’s just go down the list of bad things this movie has to offer:
1. Jess Weixler (Dawn), our heroine: She’s terrible in this movie. Is it supposed to be on purpose? I don’t know and I don’t care. She’s basically doing a terrible Delia Deetz impersonation the whole movie. Guess what Jess, you’re no Delia Deetz!
2. Every other actor: Shame on you all! I understand campy, but come on. Where did they find the guy who was supposed to be her initial love interest (Hale Appleman)? He looked like the Jonas brother they locked up in the basement for being too weird (yeah, because the other three are sooooooo normal).
3. Too much penis: Honestly, not really a problem because this is a movie about the power of women, women’s sexuality, etc. But the problem with the excessive count is that they’re never attached to a body! Someone call Trojan and tell them they need to make a chainmaille condom, stat!
4. Was there an unmentioned environmental theme to this movie? Are those Mr. Burns’ smoking power plant stacks in the background? Ok, I get it. I’ll turn off my lights!
5. Just too slow: We all know where this is going. Early on I kind of knew we’d end up with a vagina toothed, penis crunching vigilante by the end of our movie. So let’s move this pony along if we’re not going to do anything in the middle.

Seriously though, I laughed out-loud a few times during this movie although it was usually preceded by making sure my ol' "flux capacitors" were still there. I did enjoy the “power of women/sexuality” themes. I’m sure you can come across a lot of people who will love this movie - its comedic timing, its thesis and themes, and ability to present equal parts horror and comedy. But for me, this movie just fell short. It wasn’t that funny, and it was never too scary, just gory with its bad props (again, on purpose, but it just didn’t work for me). And as I stated earlier, there was just too much going on and the whole suffered.

And I’m not going to give it any leeway because of its trendiness/campiness; movies have to prove to me that I should be watching. The street doesn’t run the other way. The burden of proof lays with the filmmaker and his/her crew. I’m tired of cutting movies slack just so I can say “it’s good for that type of movie”. That’s BS! Good movies are good movies and if you’re asking for me to give you $15 at a theatre or two hours of my at home time then you better live up to your end of the deal.

In the end, Teeth didn’t make me want to recommend it to anyone. Instead it just left me wondering: what’s Dawn’s orthodontic bill look like? – 2 reels out of 5

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Greatest Van Damme Comeback!

America loves its underdogs. America loves to watch the big man fall. What does America love more? Watching the underdog reach the top, fall to the bottom off, and then make the improbable comeback. Tiger Woods: we wanted him to succeed; he got too good so we wanted him to lose. Boom! Injury hits and we’re back in his corner rooting for the comeback. Lance Armstrong: a classic David verus Goliath story. We watched and cheered as he won an unbelievable 7 Le Tour de France titles. But somewhere in there we wanted to tear him down. He’s on the juice, he divorced his wife; he’s a cheat and an asshole. Three years off and trying to pull off the impossible and all of a sudden we’re dusting off our livestrong bracelets. Why is this? What is it about people that allows them to turn on their heroes and stars so easily; what lets us go from support and admiration to mocking and laughter? I don’t know. That’s for the really real philosophy blog. But this story, this tale is exactly what we’ve done to one of our favorite action heroes of the 80’s and 90’s, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I suppose Jean-Claude Van Damme has always been something of a joke. Even when I was growing up and admiring everything about the man – his martial arts skills, athleticism, and smoothness with the ladies – I always found something comical about the way he handled himself in movies, whether it was his excessive yelling in slow motion (Bloodsport)

or his drunken-master dance moves (Kickboxer). But I was a faithful JCVD follower from my first few frames of Bloodsport all the way up to Universal Soldier: The Return (thank you Mom and Dad for not agreeing with the MPAA’s “inappropriate for children under 17” guidelines). But to most people I guess that’s what Van Damme is: the Belgian Steven Seagal - an action star who was good at his one thing and now his main purpose is to serve as the punch line in a Friday work email: Van Damme It's Friday!

But there is definitely more to the Muscles from Brussels than early ‘90s Cracker Jack action films. He has seen his fair share of ups and downs in both his professional and personal lives. Van Damme went from being “the man who brought John Woo to Hollywood” (Hard Target) to being that guy who did movies with Dennis Rodman and Rob Schneider. He went from wife 1 to wife 5 (and eventually back to wife #2). He went from happiness to depression and back and forth again. His life is a complicated one that has only recently found direction and solace. And with it comes one of the most powerful performances of the last year, if not at least the most sincere.

Simply, JCVD is a fictional movie based on the life of the real JCVD. A major star the world over, JCVD struggles to maintain a relationship with his family and make his marriage work. His career is becoming more of a joke and as it spirals down the toilet of Hollywood along with his bank account and happiness. Upon return to his hometown in Brussels, Van-Damme stops in a post office to pick up a check. There he gets caught in a robbery in progress and, due to his being seen through the window by local law enforcement, is assumed to be the perpetrator. Of course suspicions are only confirmed when people learn of his recent custody hearings and increasing debt. What follows is comedy and character study/redemptive film; a parody with a heart if you will. The opening scene of the film provides us with enough action to show that the muscles still has the speed and build, but also serves as a contrast to the rest of the movie. This film doesn’t take place on the battlefield, but rather in in a tense hostage situation and in the broken heart and failed dreams and hopes of Jean Claude Van-Damme.

At one point the Time Magazine had raved that Van-Damme had given "…the finest, most scab-pulling performance seen this year, " nothing short of Oscar® worthy. Perhaps a nod would have been nice, but with the past year’s talent, and a similar “fall from the top” film in The Wrestler, I don’t think Jean-Claude would have taken the statue home anyway. Is this the best movie ever? No, it certainly falls short in some areas. For instance, we could have used more examples of Van-Damme’s spiral downward and seen more of his dismal life that brought him to this point. Is it the greatest performance ever? Not quite…but JCVD breathes life into himself and we love him for it. He is reduced to a "normal" guy filled with fears, regret, dreams, love. Celebrity is deconstructed through a man who has known all its sides and ugly faces.

I won’t ruin it but this movie really does well involving a lot of different elements to tell a story, at one point using an honest and perfectly placed “confession” from its main character. At first you may think it’s out of place or cheap tricks, but give it a moment and you will be swept off your feet by a man who built a career by knocking people off theirs. Mickey Rourke had The Wrestler, Travolta had Pulp Fiction, and now JCVD has…well, JCVD! - - 4 reels out of 5

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gran Torino / Reader Submission #02

First I have a confession to make: I don’t watch Clint Eastwood movies. Ever. I know, I know. It’s a Cardinal Sin for a guy to admit this. I’m not really sure why honestly I don’t. I have nothing against the guy. I think he’s a great actor and a brilliant director; I just for some reason always pass on his movies. He’s like one of those bands I know I would really like if I put in the time to listen to them, but I simply haven’t. He’s my actor equivalent to the Foo Fighters.
With that now out of the way you will understand my first take on the movie. As soon as Clint opened his mouth, I was stunned. I wasn’t prepared to hear a 75 man have the voice combination of Batman and McGruff the Crime Dog. Now admittedly this is my fault for not knowing how Clint normally sounds in a movie so I cannot blame anyone but myself. It still, however, took some time to get used to the speaking voice. Once I stopped paying attention to the voice and focused on the words, they were amazing. Yes his general conversation was outrageously racist, but it was real. And don’t feel guilty for laughing at times to his comments. Some of them are so over the top that you cannot help but laugh at how ridiculous this man’s thought process really is. He was a Korean War vet who could not separate himself from his war time, still living in a mind set from 50 years earlier. With that mind set intact, his political incorrectness is extremely out of place in our current society but fits in fine in the world he still imagine he lives in. He constantly offends his neighbors and family with his racist names and stereotypes, yet manages to win them over at the same time with heroic actions. It’s a great battle of the non-hero rising to hero status while the whole time not wanting to do so. In the end he surprises everyone with one final act to save the neighborhood and show he wasn’t such a grouch all along.
Overall I give the movie a ”Definitely Rent” rating as it is worth the time and effort to see. It’s a nice combination of Falling Down, Boondock Saints, and any Clint Eastwood western movie (I’d name one, but as I mentioned before I haven’t seen them). Clint plays the same gritty, tough character you expect but reveals a soft spot at times to show there’s still a human in there. The supporting cast has a nice function with brother and sister neighbor roles which have completely opposite extrovert and introvert personalities to provide different interactions with Eastwood and keep things entertaining. So I recommend renting this movie on a slow Tuesday night when you want a nice combination of drama, action, and sarcastic dry humor. Crack open a cold Budweiser, enjoy the movie, but just don’t think of quoting Eastwood’s lines anywhere in public. Ever.
------------------------------end submission-----------------------------

Kevin, thank you for this submission. First, let me just encourage you to see some more Clint Eastwood (the actor) movies. A Fistful of Dollars, Dirty Harry, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven; they’re definitely worth it and they came out in a time when action was maybe a bit over the top, but the characters were actually tough and weren’t softened up like today’s cowboys and cops.

I had been itching to see Gran Torino for some time, but I wanted to even more after receiving your submission. And so I did. Most of the movies directed by Clint are accompanied by critical praise, but this one seemed to either not be good enough or just slipped under the radar with Clint having directed what seems like 97 movies in 3 years. The lack of praise actually peaked my interest and made me wonder “will this be the best of the recent crop?” Well, was it? First, let’s address your points.

Clint does sound like an old grizzled man (which, obviously, he is) and his voice is somewhat comical especially when he mumbles the archetypal old man line, “Get off my lawn!” Of course, instead of shaking his fist in a pair of Depends he’s pointing a M1 Garand rifle at some kids face - definitely bad ass!

Your analysis of Walt (Clint Eastwood) and his inability to let go of his world from 50 years ago is so true. And you do find yourself laughing at some of his outlandish and racist comments. I’ll be the first to say I do not tolerate any type of derogatory language for race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever, but Walt’s character is definitely hiding a “Thesaurus: Racism Edition” somewhere in those hiked up khakis.

But the movie leaves a little something to be desired. Some of the developments of the relationship between Walt and his neighbors seem a bit rushed and half-baked. And the supporting characters are a bit weak, only popping up when they have something crucial to say or reveal rather than when would be consistent or appropriate for the character. For instance, the way his children handle their mother’s funeral is just mind boggling even if their relationship with their war vet father is strained. And the priest from the local church is supposed to be dedicated to convincing Walt to attend confession, but only comes around when he can advance the story. There are other issues, some with the plot points and development, others with acting. But in the end, the whole of this movie is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is not Clint Eastwood’s best movie in the last few years, but I must admit that I was pleased. Originally I hoped I would get a little more of a Boondock Saints vibe from this, but there is less vigilante and more humanity in Gran Torino than advertised. And it’s for the better. Walt goes on a very personal journey seeking salvation, something he has been in search of for over 50years. Along the way he befriends and effects people he thought he was sworn to hate and would never understand. He teaches those who thought they had the answers, and learns from those he thought could teach him nothing. Not everything for Walt wraps up with a nice bow and gift card, but he learns a lot about life near the end of his own when all he knew was loss and death. And it’s a great little journey to go on for 2+hrs even though at points the vehicle seems a little lost. Oh, and Kevin, don't drink a Budweiser with this movie. Crack open a Pabst Blue Ribbon; would Walt have it any other way? -- 3 reels out of 5