Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Miracle on Bedford Avenue

Spike Lee is one of the most exciting directors for me to watch right now. Like Martin Scorsese, Lee continues to put out great films of a highly personal nature while continuing to explore different genres. A master of his craft, he has continued to push himself and his collaborators creatively with his last several projects including Inside Man, When The Levees Broke and Miracle at St. Anna. For anyone going into this film expecting a black Saving Private Ryan or for Spike to suddenly emulate the storytelling style of Eastwood, they are in for quite a surprise. Miracle at St. Anna is very much a Spike Lee joint with Spike using his own signatures but sadly, not the famous moving dolly shot.

Miracle at St. Anna showcases Spike in top form. Everything from the performances to the visuals and the score fit to tell the story of four black soldiers in World War II in an Italian villa surrounded by Nazis. Derek Luke gives a stand out performance as the staff sergeant Stamps. I was puzzled by the fact that Spike originally offered the role to Wesley Snipes because not only was Luke terrific, but I felt it was much better for the story to have a young soldier leading the other young soldiers. Furthermore, the international cast is outstanding and Spike subtitles almost two thirds of the movies in Italian and German making it feel more authentic. The battles that bookend the film’s war segment are also shot realistically but not so overblown that Spike might think he could outdo Spielberg or Eastwood.

And therein lies one of the major misunderstandings about the film. It is not epic, but it is more of a character piece in a wartime setting. Where the movie might have become generic in the hands of another director, Spike makes the movie the same way he made all his other movies for better or worse. Critics have dismissed the ‘paranormal’ element of the film as taking away from what might be a nod to Italian neo-realism. As if any educated person stepping into a movie with the word ‘miracle’ in the title would be puzzled by some supernatural theme, I completely understood what was really happening behind the eyes of the small Italian boy that the soldiers rescue. Furthermore, for being called a ‘reverse racist’ Spike, while he belabors the racial issue rather unexpectedly he takes great pains to show the German soldiers as he does the American soldiers. Not in the manner of race relations but in the madness of war and with growing distrust and empathy towards his enemies, Spike at times goes shot for shot for both the Allies and the Nazis.

With a few clever “40 Acres and a Mule Company Players” cameos at the bookends, Spike plays with both the expected and the unexpected. From the man who directed the Public Enemy video in which the song goes “Motherfuck him (Elvis) and John Wayne!” to open with the first face onscreen as John Wayne in a World War II movie got a chuckle out of me and I found myself nodding my head when Spike went back in time to show the racism the soldiers faced back home when in a ice cream shop with German POWs. In this way, however, Spike accomplishes what Spielberg did in Ryan by making the audience emotionally invested in the soldiers by time the final battle plays out. Spike has made a serious war movies dealing with a range of real issues to soldiers and civilians that will probably not get recognized with any awards but is definitely worth a few hours of your time.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Polanski was a Perfectionist

It’s time for another entry in my ongoing series about the Criterion Collection and my Essential Art House Janus Films box set. Only this time, I have something more in store for you, dear readers. You see kids, I learned long ago that it is not the destination but the journey. And that it is always more enjoyable to take a journey with someone else. For me, that partner on this journey is my friend Alex. We used to work together at DVD Planet and he still does. He is also a son of a bitch for purchasing the very same Janus box I own for one hundred dollars used. So, now we are going to be writing about these films together to give you more intrigue for your internet, more mojo for your modem and any other number of clever computer rhymes. While discussing the details over the phone, we giggled like school girls over the day when we would get to a film that we were severely divided over. Point in fact, it did not take use long to get there. Read Alex’s entry first, because my name is at the top of this page and I will have the last word, dammit!

Do you ever wake up in the morning with the feeling that something isn’t right? Everything is closing in on you while anxiety, claustrophobia, and dread creep inside you like a knife. Knife in the Water is that knife. Just like in Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski builds a solid thriller with slow hypnotic images that makes you wish every film was shot on black and white. If a somewhat slow paced film doesn’t spark your interest then stay for the beautiful and amazing cinematography that will feed your eyes with pure sweet sweetness.

The story is pretty simple; a couple picks up a hitch hiker while on their way to their boat for a fun day of sailing. It’s a good thing these Europeans have never seen a slasher film because they take him along on the boat ride. That’s the whole movie in a nut shell, except that there is this lingering tension that keeps on digging and digging a needle into your back and you have no idea where it’s going to take you.

With our knowledge of film, we all know that three is a crowd and one man has to go. A battle of testosterone ensues but in the European kind of way where your social class is attacked. The film is a hypnotic, thriller with social context, and to cap it all off it is also a feminist film that criticizes masculinity as both of the men go back and forth at each other while making themselves look pretty stupid. Not that I think Polish men are women beating assholes but the husband is king of a douche and it sure looks like he sends her straight to the moon on occasion. The film takes her point of view and puts the two men into her gaze for the majority of the film. Her gaze does focus on the young hitch hiker and she plays around with him by undressing right by him and trading a glance or two his way. Is this young man her way out of this marriage or does is he serves another purpose? Polanski does serve us with several references to Christianity but with only the young man in the frame. Maybe he is her savior, or maybe that what she wants him to be.

From the ghostly beginning credits to the final static image of a parked car, Polanski plays with our strings and never lets go. Unlike the majority of modern psychological thrillers, this film takes it bloody time developing the characters and building the tension between all three characters on the boat. And bloody enjoyed every single minute of this film. Good Day.

For what was billed as a ‘taut, psychological thriller’ I have not been more disappointed in ninety minutes of my life than I was with Knife in the Water. Indeed, the great composition of Polanski’s shots and the score that’s evocative of Bernard Hermann’s Taxi Driver theme does as much as possible to create suspense, but I haven’t watched a movie and felt so unfulfilled since The Seven Year Itch. Too obscure? Ok. Imagine Death Proof without the car chase at the end. That’s what Knife in the Water felt like, only in Polish. For over an hour, a couple and a hitchhiker ride a boat and do nothing. There are long glances, close confrontations and simmering sexuality that amount to very little. Few words are exchanged, even fewer punches are thrown and nobody gets laid. Not that I watch a movie for only those things, but they were leading up to it the whole time, only for none of it to come to fruition. Near the end, when it seems the hitchhiker might have drowned, my only wish was that it would have been me.

The underlying themes of machismo and the intellectual versus the primitive or uncultured were barely were paying attention to, as I was thoroughly uninterested in what became of the characters. I kept thinking back to Straw Dogs, which I found to be a far more satisfying movie about the same themes, up to and including the troublesome wife. Sure, I’m probably taking an extremely chauvinistic point of view here, but I have been a man for most of my life. Did you ever notice when two men meet in a film, they usually end up as buddies by the end? But, when you throw in a woman, suddenly they are at each other’s throat, vying for her attention, ready to kill each other for even the slightest hint of affection! How like life.

I got the next pick for our series and hopefully, I will choose a film that will give me something more to write about than just a few paragraphs about how much I didn’t like it. Nothing against the pedophile Polanski, but Chinatown this movie is not.

Knife in the Water is available on DVD from Criterion and also as part of it's new Essential Art House Collection.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bringing the Thunder!

I have to preface this review by admitting to the fact that I cannot stand Ben Stiller. I mean I downright loathe the guy. I never bothered with Meet the Fockers, tolerated him in Dodgeball and think that Zoolander is retarded. I use to wonder why people liked him – did somebody say Wonder?

Enjoy the Hanukkah cookie, man.

However, I went into Tropic Thunder willing to suspend all of that for a movie that I really wanted to like and I was not disappointed. Tropic Thunder is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, hitting the comedy and the action on higher marks than almost any other movie I’ve seen attempt to do both. Opening with the final scene of the movie within a movie being filmed, the gunfire and explosions feel like a real Vietnam movie and the over the top performances are also instantly recognizable as staples of today’s large ‘event driven’ movies. I was hooked and loved every scene in this movie. The story moved along swiftly bouncing between characters and storylines and the dialogue was distinct and clever, especially for such a diverse array of characters who are all essentially the same kind of people; actors. From the opening shots, Stiller directs the movie confidently and with the help of Academy Award winning cinematographer John Toll, the film looks and feels exactly like the ones it’s attempting to parody.

The film is first and foremost a parody. That’s why Robert Downey Jr. was able to pull off something so remarkable in fashioning three amazing characters all in a single role, something not even Peter Sellers did. As Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, black Army vet Sgt. Lincoln Osirus and an Asian rice farmer, he was magnetizing to watch every moment he was on screen. From explaining the emotional sting of the word nigger to the only actual black cast member to flattering Speedman’s physique in order to deceive him, every line out of his mouth is comic gold. And, he would be the best part of this movie if it were not for Tom Cruise. Yes, Tom Cruise as Les Grossman is the wildest role he has ever taken in his career. I haven’t laughed harder at somebody dropping f-bombs since Steve Martin at the rental car agency in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. He’s so funny, it’s like watching Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock when you think to yourself, “Why haven’t they been doing this all along?” Dancing, cursing and balding, Cruise is as you never seen him before and worth a ticket price all on his own.

Ok, this bit is also pretty funny.

The rest of the cast is great too, including Jack Black, friend of the blog Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey actually acting and quickly becoming a favorite Danny McBride. I’ve already seen it a few times and am desperately trying to take my mother to see it. She’s a huge Tom Cruise fan and we saw Lions for Lambs and Collateral together. I think she’ll enjoy this one as much as I did. While it looks like a busy fall season, I think Tropic Thunder has the legs to hold up as one of my top five of the year.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Vicky Michael Heaven

My favorite Woody Allen movies are the ones where someone else plays Woody Allen. John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway, Seth Green in Radio Days and Jason Biggs in Anything Else turn in my favorite performances of Woody. The man is such a character himself, that it is always a delight for me to see some else portray him, even Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda. So, I was head over heels when Rebecca Hall begins to deconstruct Javier Bardem in front of Scarlett Johansson in Woody’s newest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. While you can tell that Cristina and Juan Antonio are attracted to each other, Vicky completely removes herself from the situation to comment on the absurdity of it and from that moment on, I was in love with her. Yes, both Scarlett and Penelope Cruz are gorgeous, but Rebecca Hall completely stole the film away from them and every time the story moved away from her, I could not wait for it to come back to her.

Of course, this is all to Woody’s intent. While the movie looked to be a simple sex comedy with Javier, Scarlett and Penelope in a love triangle, the real story is not about any of them. It becomes Vicky’s story and Rebecca Hall’s movie. I know people enjoyed Penelope more or perhaps thought that Scarlett was truly the star of the film, but it was Vicky who undergoes the real transformation in the story, becoming a different person by the end than she was in the beginning. And Hall moves from her very serious and underrated performance in The Prestige, to a light comedic role with an American accent. Right now, I am riding hard for her as my Supporting Actress of the Year.

But that does not take away from anyone else, as the rest of the cast turn in great performances as well. Javier is miles removed from last year’s No Country turn and turns on the leading man charm that has only previously been known to fans of foreign films. Scarlett was a terrific choice as a woman who never knows what she wants; only what she doesn’t want. Maybe it is just me but she always seem to have a slightly perplexed look on her face, like she’s not quite sure what’s going on, but just enjoying the ride. And while I certainly agree with all the praise heaped on Penelope Cruz, I thought she was far better in Volver and that she was barely in the movie at all. She was a force of nature, tearing through the film like she did in Blow, but I never got to really understand her, only what she meant to the other characters. None of my gripes took away from the film at all, as I felt it was an amazing return to form for Woody after films like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. The images of Barcelona and the beautiful actors glow as shot by Javier Aguirresarobe, cinematographer of such films as Talk to Her and The Others. The images and narration serve to lull you into a warm feeling similar to kind served up by all the wine enjoyed by the characters and it works brilliantly. I left the theatre with a smile on my face and a Spanish guitar in my heart.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Five Fast Film Reviews

Whew, the last month blew by so quick without blogging that I had a chance to go see quite a few movies. I plan on posting longer reviews on certain movies that I saw and really enjoyed but I wanted to post something about a few lesser movies that I also enjoyed. And by lesser, I mean smaller.

House Bunny

What I Liked About It - Anna Faris. I can watch her in almost anything. From Lost in Translation to Just Friends, I think she's great. Colin Hanks looks more an more like his father in every movie. Chicks, man. Hot chicks throughout this movie like nobody's business. Kat Dennings. And Emma Stone channeling her Superbad co-star Jonah Hill.

Star Wars: Clone Wars

What I Liked About It - Visuals you would never see in a George Lucas movie. More Obi-Wan kicking ass. Heavy on the lightsabers battles, easy on the space fighter battles.

Hamlet 2

What I Liked About It - Steve Coogan. Mexicans being portrayed as more than stereotypes. Elisabeth Shue, still gorgeous and brilliant as herself, not always an easy thing to do. Catherine Keener. Raped in the Face and Rock Me Sexy Jesus. And even David Arquette.


What I Liked About It - Bill Maher. Larry Charles dressing like a Hassidic Jew for most of the movie. The unbelievable access Maher and his crew achieved. Maher being a comedian first, a filmmaker second and never passing up a chance to make an easy joke.

Burn After Reading

What I Liked About It - The Cast. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, JK Simmons, the Coens going back to Raising Arizona and Big Lebowski territory and all those wonderful toys.

BACK! Caught You Looking At The Same Thing...

Yes, after an absurdly long absence, Big Mike is back and blogging bigger and better than before. All alliteration aside, I just wanted to let everyone know what's up with me.

Basically, the laptop took a huge dump on me and it took awhile before I could get it fixed. It was a simple fix in the end, but the lesson learned here is, I am going to buy a Mac.

Tomorrow, I am going to get up bright and early and try to get caught up on things I've missed in a month offline. I heard something about Harry Potter but no big deal, it will be out next month... Also, I will try to bring you up to date on what films I've seen in the last month which include, Tropic Thunder, Religious, Clone Wars, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hamlet 2, House Bunny and gulp, Disaster Movie.

Anything else? If there is, I will get to it soon! Thanks for sticking with me guys. Being away from my blog has been akin to breaking up with your girlfriend then getting back together with her. Of course, my blog won't bring up old stuff like why do I still talk to other blogs or do I feel anything when I blog or do I just need to get off on it? Does that make sense?