Friday, October 31, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

“Sometimes you need someone else to show you the things you can’t see.”


The latest from writer/director Kevin Smith focuses on two lifelong friends and roommates who find themselves under a mountain of debt with no money to pay off rising expenses.

Out of other, more conventional, options Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) decide to make a porno together in hopes of raising enough money to get their water and heat turned back on.

Those familiar with Smith’s films will feel right at home here with the vulgar humor tinged with some sweetness. There’s also some Star Wars references thrown in, and I would like to know what George Lucas thought of Zack and Miri’s first porno idea.

You’ll also notice some staples of the View Askew universe in small roles including Jason Mewes, Jennifer Schwalbach, and Jeff Anderson as those who chip in to help on the film.

Although it’s nice to see the familiar faces its the newcomers who fair best here. Banks and Rogen have a nice chemistry and are well-cast as friends who could be more, Katie Morgan and Traci Lords (wait until you learn why she is called Bubbles) provide some memorable moments, Brandon Routh has a funny cameo during the high school reunion (though Justin Long‘s performance is too over-the-top for me), and Craig Robinson, who’s given the best line of the film, nearly steals the show.

There aren’t too many surprises here and you can guess where the story and characters will end up. For a film about making a porno there’s not as much sex as you would expect in the film (which was initially branded NC-17 by the MPAA), and I like how it’s used mostly as a vehicle for humor and to develop the relationship between the two leads.

Zack and Miri won’t knock your socks off but it’s a fun potty-mouth filled film (at times litrally) with a nice message of friendship and love mixed in. I’m happy to see Smith put on a film which doesn’t star Ben Affleck or the center around the Clerks duo, but now I hope he branches out even more with his next project and tries something a little different.

Changeling

“Miss Collins, if that’s your son I’ll eat my yardstick.”


Based on a true story the film, set in Los Angeles of the 1920’s, tells the tale of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) and her missing son.

When the police reunite her with who they believe to be her son Collins quickly finds plenty of evidence to support her own feelings that this boy is not Walter. Attempts to get the police to acknowledge their mistakes fall on deaf ears and eventually Collins is thrown into an asylum for her “irrational” behavior. Cue the inevitable electro-shock scene.

Director Clint Eastwood gives us a terrific looking picture filled with crazy and bizarre events. However the film’s mood is never quite right and many of the disturbing events, such as the inane explanations in the change of Walter by the officer in charge (Jeffrey Donovan) and a doctor (Peter Gerety), come off silly rather than menacing.

The film is broken into different sections which don’t necessarily cut well together. The first feels like a lame Twilight Zone episode, then there’s the story about the corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department, Collins stay in the madhouse, a courtroom drama, and the darker horror elements which take place in a farm in the middle of nowhere. In this story about a missing child the child whose missing is lost for long periods of time due to all the other storylines in play and giving the film an unfocused feel.

At more than two-hours the movie is also too long and filled with extra scenes, five and ten years later. The presence of these epilogues is to show Collins’ over the years; the effect is to create in the viewer a growing desperation that the film will never end.

There are also a few too many applause moments for me, especially in the film’s third act, scenes designed solely for the audience to cheer. These types of scenes work well in sports movies, but in a drama, if not handled carefully, they come off cheesy. And overall the film seems to be playing up to an Oscar audience rather then to simply telling its story, which should, though isn’t, compelling enough on its own.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the film. Although story is a problem the movie is filled with good performances from Jason Bulter Harner, Amy Ryan, Jolie herself, and John Malkovich as a preacher with a blood feud against the LAPD who helps in Collins’ struggle. And Eastwood provides some of his trademark movie magic moments over the course of the film, though not quite enough to overcome its flaws.

The look and style of the film, along with the acting, is quite good, but the unfocused storytelling and unintentional humor of the film make it a story which is almost impossible to take seriously. If I had been able to buy into the highly unusual tale I’m sure my reaction would have been more positive, and there will be those who might not find the situations, as they are presented, as laughable as I did, but in the end Changeling feels like a miscalculation on Eastwood’s part and a bit of a head-scratcher as to what movie he actually wanted to tell.

RocknRolla

There is no honor among thieves.


The latest from writer/director Guy Ritchie is a bit of a convoluted tale of real-estate scams in London. Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) runs an under the table service of getting property rights quickly passed through red tape for an exorbitant fee. Anyone needing business done quickly has no other option than to go through Cole.

After bilking two tough guys (Gerard Bulter, Idris Elba) out of their dream, and getting them to owe him money, Cole moves onto business with a Russian (Karel Roden). Here’s where things get complicated.

In need of some fast cash One Two (Butler) and Mumbles (Elba) take a job from an associate (Thandie Newton) to rob a large supply of money coming into London. Unknown to the pair the money is the payoff the Russian is bringing to Cole, and its theft jeopardizes the business deal.

Events are further complicated by Cole’s son-in-law (Toby Kebbell), a minor rock star and junkie, who faked his own death and stole a painting from Cole’s home - a gift from the Russian who wants it back.

The script relies too much on coincidence. The inter-connectedness of the plot could easily have been tweaked to be a bit more believable, but instead the series of events piles higher and higher like a house of cards, and eventually collapses. The film also culminates in a large revelation, which although it works, doesn’t really have the impact Ritchie hoped for.

Still, there’s quite a bit that works here including some fine performances, one of the best sex scenes in recent memory, the humorous fall-out from an admission of one of One Two’s gang, and the return of the seedy gruff style which Ritchie pulls off so well.

RocknRolla is the type of movie which will play well to Ritchie’s fans but probably won’t win him over many new ones. It’s an okay film about gangsters, thieves, and murder, but it doesn’t add much new to the genre. If you’re a fan of his work, or you like your action rough and sleazy, it might, might, be worth a couple hours of your time.

Friday, October 24, 2008

High School Musical 3

“You may be ready to say goodbye to East High, but East High’s not ready to say goodbye to you.”


I missed the first two made-for-TV High School Musical films, but even coming late to the party it didn’t take me long to get the lay of the land. It’s senior year at East High in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That means one last musical for the gang, and fears about future college plans and long-distance romance for Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens).

Although the storylines are quite simple. the sets, costumes, and choreography make stand-out performances. The film, tongue firmly in cheek, makes homage to everything from Busby Berkley to Madonna’s “Material Girl” video.

In terms of acting most of this cast belongs on television, and, aside from some big-hearted musical numbers, they don’t do much to distinguish themselves. Hudgens proves she has a voice for the big screen, but not, at least yet, the acting chops to hold down a lead. Ashely Tisdale is hurt by the limitations of her role as the blonde bitch, and Efron’s everyman character tries to be so many things I’m still not sure who exactly Troy Bolton really is. The two performances I was most impressed with were Lucas Grabeel and Olesya Rulin, who I look forward to seeing in other projects in the future..

Without much of a plot, and some limited performances, the film is saved only by the amount of energy and eagreness on display here which finally crescendos at the climax of the film in the school’s senior year musical.

The film knows it’s target audience and goes after it. Here’s a chance for fans to see these characters once more, this time on the big screen, and say goodbye. It won’t pull in many new viewers, and shows many of the limitations of its genre, and probably belongs more on television than the big screen, but if your a fan of the series there might be enough here to have a fun, though not that memorable, time at the movies.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Max Payne

“I don’t believe in heaven.”


The film is based on the Max Payne video game, so stay with me as I attempt to explain the plot.

Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) is a police detective assigned as a file clerk to the Cold Case room in the bowels of the department. Mostly Max looks angry/constipated as he sits at his desk going over files and in his spare time tries to solve the murder of his wife (Marianthi Evans) and daughter.

A new lead kills his former partner (Donal Logue) and a young woman who Max was pumping for information (Olga Kurylenko), who it turns out is the sister of a nefarious assassin (Mila Kunis). Max is framed for both murders and goes on the run to discover the truth.

His quest will take him on a byzantine journey through his wife’s former job, an old friend of his father’s (Beau Bridges), and a secret drug called Valkyr.

The look of the film is quite good and the production value is high. The snowfall, use of shadow, and the effects of the Valyries themselves are all well done. It seems no expense was spared into making this look like a good movie; too bad nobody spent some cash on the story.

The film is mired in a plot which makes little to no sense. The drug itself creates either A) super soldiers who feel no pain or B) delusional junkies who are attacked by harpy looking Valkyries. The film never decides whether the Valkyries are real or hallucination. If they are real where do they come from, and if they are simply figments why does everyone who takes the drug see the exact same thing? And how are tattoos (don’t ask) supposed to stop them?

The plot borrows loosely from Norse mythology in a way that makes me believe somebody was writing a cop/drug movie and his kid brought home a beginner’s book on the subject which he only briefly skimmed and added to the mix. The result is ridiculous at best (as in the tattoo artist who gives us a brief history lesson on the subject) and mind-numbingly retarded at worst (as in the name for the baddies secret base).

Speaking of ridiculous, there’s also the insanely bad casting decision of Mila Kunis as an assassin. I like Kunis, who was quite good in Finding Sarah Marshall (read the DVD review), but no matter how much she scowls it was impossible for me to take her seriously as a bad ass chick who could actually kill anyone. And I’m supposed to buy she runs an entire organization with nothing but her looks and a few guns? Yes she’s got a great ass but that’s not all you need to play an assassin.



There’s also a problem with Payne’s innocence. The cops, led by an Internal Affairs agent (Ludacris), are a little too quick to buy his guilt, and even quicker to believe his innocence later, without much evidence. It doesn’t help that the plot calls for Payne to consistently make worse and worse decisions which only serve to feed the plot’s need to make him look guilty.

Save me from movies based off video games. The film is a mess. It may be a step up from complete disasters like Doom (read that review), but so is a sharp kick to the groin. If you have to see it I’d recommend waiting for DVD and watching it with the sound off, creating you own plot to go with the impressive look of the film. You could hardly do worse.

W.

“Any kind of government will do, as long as it’s a democracy.”


Oliver Stone‘s biopic on George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) is a bit of a mixed bag. On one side you have a terrific lead performance by Brolin and strong performances by Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and James Cromwell as Geroge Herbert Walker Bush. On the other hand you’ve got a group of caricatures from the likes of Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffudd, Toby Jones, and Jeffrey Wright, among others, all of which seem to belong more on a parody sketch from MADtv than a feature film.

Also, and perhaps more surprising, is that Oliver Stone, the guy who gave us an epic conspiracy in JFK and the foibles which brought down a president in Nixon, doesn’t have much to say about W.

Stone’s basic premise is George is a dumbshit with a daddy complex better suited to be a used car salesman who became president. That’s not exactly breaking news. And although there are some good scenes throughout the film, Stone doesn’t really offer much insight into the character as he’s too busy poking fun at everyone involved.

The film moves through various flashbacks from Bush’s life including his troubled college years, his struggle to find a career, his animosity with his father, his early forays into politics, his love of baseball, and the US entering into the Iraq War. There are quite a few moments which aren’t covered however. His first presidential run is barely mentioned (and Al Gore’s name is missing completely) and his run at a second term isn’t even given a footnote. And although the some of the decisions made after 9/11 are discussed the attack itself isn’t a part of the film.

Bush-haters will love the film, the Christian Right will hate it, and the rest of will simply be disappointed. Stone delivers an okay, though mostly empty, comedy with a subject ripe for ridicule, but I guess I expected more. The film is still worth seeing for Brolin’s terrific performance of Bush’s natural buffoonery and mangling of the English language, but it won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.

Sex Drive

“What smells like jizz?”


Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a senior in high school and still a virgin much to the dismay of his best bud Lance (Clark Duke) and his over-agressive brother Chet, I mean Rex (James Marsden doing a spot-on imitation of Bill Paxton from Weird Science).

Ian’s life is complicated in his hidden feelings for his best friend Felicia (Amanda Crew) who has a crush on Lance. The threesome pile in Chet’s car for a road trip together to get Ian hooked up with a girl he met online (Katrina Bowden) and hilarity, or vague resemblance to it, ensues.

The film is exactly what you expect it to be, no more and no less. It’s a braindead teenage love story filled with odd humor (Ian dressed up as a donut), the inevitable trip to jail, embarrassing situations, some hot chicks (Alice Greczyn, Jessica Just), crazy people met on the road (David Koeschner, Dave Sheridan, Seth Green), and a slow realization from all the characters about who they are and who they truly belong with. Awwww…

And the film (in one of its better scenes) finds a way to bring all the characters together and wrap up each story at once.

You’ve seen this before, and you’ve seen it better. There’s nothing really wrong with Sex Drive other than its lack of originality, and there are some funny and outrageous bits throughout the film. Seth Green is kinda funny (and I would love to hear the Amish reaction to the film’s take on Rumspriga as Spring Break mixed with a frat party), Crew is well-cast as the cool and cute (but not too sexy) best friend, and those end credits are sort of interesting. In the end however Sex Drive spends most of its time in neutral.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Body of Lies

“Ferris didn’t give much thought then to the complexity that lay beyond this vision; the maze that was so perfectly constructed you didn’t think to ask whether it was perhaps inside a larger maze.”


Leonardo DiCaprio stars as CIA agent Roger Ferris who is sent to the Middle East by his superior Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to find and stop an emerging terrorist leader.

When the film focuses on the relationships between Hoffman, Ferris and the head of the Jordanian Intelligence (Mark Strong) it works quite well. Trust and partnerships are very fragile things in the region where anyone could just as easily be your enemy or ally.

Ferris must deal with the ego of his boss while trying to create trust with the officials in whose country he is operating. It doesn’t help that Hoffman’s idea of diplomacy is deception and the end of the knife. Hoffman’s only concerns are completing the mission and keeping American interests prioritized over of all others.

Although DiCaprio gets the bigger role it’s Crowe who steals the film. As Hoffman he portrays an intelligence and American arrogance which is infuriating as he turns out to be right most of the time. Strong also puts in another nice supporting performance here.

I also like Ferris’ plan for catching the terrorist leader, though it, like much of the film, feels a little too much like a lesser version of Traitor (read that review), without the character study to balance the action and terrorism plot.

The film makes a few missteps. For some reason a love story is hamfistedly pushed into the tale, simply to allow for unfortunate events in the plot to be played out later. And although I like how the audience is thrown into the story without much explanation, the film also has a bit of a pacing problem as it rushes important ideas and set-ups to larger themes at times and slows to a crawl at others.

Body of Lies may not be all that you hope for with the talent involved. It’s not as good as Traitor, but it is an engaging film with a strong performance by Crowe which alone is worth the price of admission.

City of Ember

“In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark. The city of Ember was old, and everything in it, including the power lines, was in need of repair.”


For more than 200 years the city of Ember has substained life. Now the generator which keeps the underground city lit has begun to fail and it falls to two young tweens (Saorise Ronan, Harry Treadway) to save the day.

Like most films about kids saving the world the film is a bit of a mixed bag. The story, adapted from the Jeanne DuPrau novel, allows for some imaginative set design teen adventure, but doesn’t offer much more than an amusing ride.

Over the course of the tale we learn that children pick their life-long professions out of a sack at the age of 12, the mayor (Bill Murray) knows more about the increasing power losses than he’s saying, and that most adults (as in most films of this vein) have absolutely no idea what is going on.

Rated PG the film is geared more to kids and teens than adults, although a couple of monster sequences spaced throughout the film seem more geared to a horror movie than a family picture and could very easily frighten young children.

The cast includes many familiar faces including Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, and Toby Jones, but its the two teenage leads who do the majority of the work in carrying the film. The script doesn’t ask them to do too much, and fills the screen with a fantasy world and some elaborate stunt sequences which seem to suggest the strong possibility of a theme park ride inspired by the film.

Although the film only has a running time of 95 minutes it seems longer. Adults may grow bored, but older children and teens may find the adventure and the small spark of imagination enough to keep their interest.

The Express

“And I won’t tell him he’ll be the next Ernie Davis, because there’ll never be another Ernie Davis.”


The film follows the college career of young Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) who follows in the footsteps of his hero Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) to play football for Syracuse University.

After the early scenes involving Ernie’s recruitment by Brown and head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), the film moves to Syracuse, the short scenes involving Davis’ freshman season on the bench, and his break-out sophomore year.

In terms of sports movies many of the regular clich├ęs are on hand here. Quaid is the gruff coach with a heart who learns to love and trust his players, and the film showcases the racial issues of the time in a mostly family friendly PG kinda way. However the film also strays from the pat formula in some interesting ways.

Davis isn’t the headcase, the star with the ego, the brain, or the fool. He’s just a good guy with a talent for playing football and a drive to prove something to himself, as well as his detractors, on the field. Rob Brown gives a strong performance that will either make or break the movie, and he succeeds.

I also like the urging of Ernie’s brother (Nelsan Ellis) who chastises him into understanding how important his role is off the field as well as on and to think not only about football. Although I was expecting the racism on the field and in the towns the team traveled (as in Remember the Titans and other films), here was something with a new slant which added to the palette of the film and made Davis a more contemplative and complete character.

Most of the film deals with Davis and his sophomore season leading Syracuse to the National Championship. The later scenes involving the season for which he won the Heisman and his ill-fated pro career are only vaguely touched on in comparison.

The football scenes are well shot and the film has a nice pacing in terms of how the film and Davis’ career at Syracuse are cut together. I would have liked a little more after that sophomore year, but understand the need of the sports movie genre to give us the big climax before moving quickly through later events. I do wonder, however, if those months after his diagnosis which are only glimpsed at here might have made for a more stirring and compelling film.

The Diagnosis
The life of Ernie Davis, like so many sports figures is both a sad and glorious one. Director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt do justice to adapting Robert Gallagher‘s biography and sharing with us the college career which won Davis the Heisman, and the story of the man under the helmet who was the first African-American athlete to achieve the honor.

I Served the King of England

“It was my luck to run into bad luck.”

The story follows the remembrances of Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) who, recently released in prison after almost 15 years, begins a new life and thinks back of the experiences of his younger self (Ivan Barnev).

We follow the young waiter’s experiences as he works himself up the ladder at various restaurants and hotels over the years. Dite’s slow rise takes some unexpected, and often humorous, turns over the years.

His emotional journey also takes him through the arms (and out of the beds) of beautiful women before falling hopelessly in love with a card carrying Nazi (Julia Jentsch).

I Served the King of England is about many things, and about nothing. Writer/director Jiri Menzel gives us a winding tale about the finicky nature of life, money, love, regret, and politics. The film is at its best when it mixes its sly humor with a deep melancholy in moments when reality hits Dite’s dreams right in the face (such as his understanding of Liza’s fervor and duties to the Nazi party).

I’ll stop for a second to commend the entire cast. Barnev is terrifc and carries this oddball role with a grace that is mystifying. Kaiser is well cast as the older Dite and from his eyes we glimpse both the humor and pain he has lived through. The women of the film are beautiful, and Jentsch is just about the sweetest little Nazi you’ve seen in the movies (even if she does stare at the painting of Hitler when she makes love to Dite). The film is also filled with good supporting roles, too many to list here.

The film has a look, feel, and energy which seems more in tune with the silent films of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton than to modern cinema of any genre. As such it comes off as fresh, different, a little odd, and unexpected.

Through the eyes of Dite, which the story is presented, everything takes on a sweet innocence, even Nazis! Filled with an excess of beautiful nude women the film never looses its inherent goodness nor becomes vulgar. In the eyes of Dite a beautiful woman isn’t a sex object as much as a piece of the divine.



In many ways the story feels like a story or fairy tale one might tell a small child before bedtime.

Dite’s childlike state is honestly confused by events which don’t fall into his dreams of owning his own hotel. The trouble and hostility he finds are baffling to him, even when he begins dating a Nazi. This creates bittersweet moments filled with an abundance of both joy and pain.

Dite’s life is a tragedy, but one which will make you laugh. Through the later scenes of his life we see his misadventures have not left him bitter. He’s lived his life and achieved his dreams if only for a few fleeting moments, how many of us can honesty saw we’ve accomplished that?

Throughout the course of the film Dite has the habit of taking his loose change and throwing it to the ground. Inevitably, no matter how far he has risen or the wealth of those he is serving, those around him begin scrounging around for a few loose coins. In this simple act you begin to understand the childlike wonder of Dite which may be slightly diminished by the tragedies of his life but never extinguished. A funny movie tinged with tragedy and loss, I Served the King of England is amusing, captivating, and thought provoking. You’ll likely have to hunt down local art houses to find this one or wait until the film makes its way to DVD, but it’s worth the effort.

The Duchess

“It is said that the Duke is the only man in Devonshire not in love with his wife.”


The film chronicles the public life of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley) from her ill-suited wedding to the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), through her life in high society, her role as wife and mother, and her struggle with finding love.

Outside of her marriage Gerogiana is the life of the party, with a talent for fashion and a passion for the cause of women’s suffrage.

At home however her life is a struggle with her inability go give her husband a male heir, her husband’s infidelity with all manner of women including her closest firend (Hayley Atwell), her not so well hidden feelings for the young eager politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) and the growing distance in her marriage.

The main obstacle for historic films with scandalous subject matter (for the the times) is to keep the story from falling from drama into melodrama. The Duchess does a good job for most of it’s running time but finally succumbs in its final act which feels more like a romance novel than a historical drama.

Even if the film flounders some towards the end it does quite a bit right. Knightley shines once again in a period role, though Georgiana for all her importance is one of the weaker women she’s played on screen as the script paints her a bit too much of a victim for my tastes. I would have liked to see more of the strength of this important woman in British history.

The supporting cast is strong with Fiennes, Cooper, Atwell, and Charlotte Rampling in the small role as Georgiana’s mother. And in terms of sets, costumes, and art design the film is a great success.

Although The Duchess might get notice for its leading lady, and Fiennes who puts in a strong performance, and its style and look, it’s not quite the film it hopes to be. Through the film we watch Georgiana struggle with her situation, but we learn very little about her as a person other than her loneliness and desire to be loved. It’s not quite the complete film I would have liked, but what it does right it does very well,

Friday, October 3, 2008

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

“Where’s Fluffy?”


The film is about Nick (Michael Cera), the only straight guy in an all gay band who was recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), and Norah (Kat Dennings), a straight-edge alternative girl with a good taste in music and a a bad taste in guys(Jay Baruchel), a dislike for Tris and a crush on her unknown former boyfriend.

Through circumstances you will only find in movies like this Nick and Norah pretend to be boyfriend/girlfriend in an attempt to keep Tris of their backs for five seconds. A quick kiss, for Tris’ benefit, immediately shows sparks between the two, who spend the night together and apart all over the city.

Although a bit contrived the set-up here works well enough to get these two young actors together on the streets of Manhattan. The possibility of a teen Before Sunrise (read that review) is lost however as the love story is constantly derailed by the script.

Rather than focusing on the two getting together, learning about each other, or searching for the secret performance of their favorite band, the story keeps getting off-track.

The pair are forced to find Norah’s best friend (Ari Graynor) who gets drunk and lost on the streets of New York, fight about unimportant issues, get separated and spend time with their ex’s, and all manner of other obstacles meant to keep them interested in each other but apart for most of the film’s running time. By the time they get together (hope I’m not ruining anything for you, but really what other ending is there for this type of flick?) we no longer care.

Although Cera and Dennings are good on screen together, Nick and Nora are not. Had the film taken are more natural approach (something like Say Anything…, read that review) rather than antics and absurd contrivances than there might have been something here. Sadly, there’s not.

I’m also a bit tired of the “cool but not popular teen comedy.” Nick and Norah are presented as just geeky and different enough to not be cool, yet their differences show them to be the actual cool ones. Rather than focusing on making the characters cool yet not-cool how about making them real or, you know, interesting? Just a suggestion.

There are moments in this film between the gross humor of Caroline’s misadventures, the gay jokes, the painful scenes involving former significant others, and the absurdity of the entire adventure, but they are few and far between. The core love story, which should be the center of the film, is lost for large stretches at a time to zaniness which isn’t all that zany, or fun to watch.

Appaloosa

“Which is how, fifteen years ago, I got to be a peace officer and Virgil Cole’s deputy. Which is why I was with him now, still carrying the eight-gauge, walking the horses down a long, shale-scattered slope toward Appaloosa.”


The town of Appaloosa is under the thumb of rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose men take whatever they want. After the marshal (Robert Jaregui) is killed by Bragg and his men the town council seeks outside help to solve their situation.

They enlist the help of two gun hands, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his longtime sidekick Everitt Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to clean up the town and take Bragg down. Cole’s mission to deliver justice is made more difficult by the arrival of a complicated woman (Renne Zellweger) and Bragg’s connections in Washington.

Western lovers should enjoy this film which pays homage in style to many old favorites. I was also impressed that much of the dialogue from Robert B. Parker‘s novel was kept in the film adding a unique voice both harsh and humorous to the proceedings.

I enjoyed the look of the film, though shot on a limited budget, which contains some good cinematography. And, on a historic note, I also appreciated that the town of Appaloosa was built on the railroad line (something which all too often wasn’t the case in many old westerns).

Although Irons isn’t asked to do much Mortensen and Harris are terrific together as a pair of classic cowboys. Most of the film’s best scenes are simple conversations between the pair. And Zellweger is well cast as the wildcard who often, sometimes meaning to and sometimes not, throws complication into the situation.

Although Appaloosa isn’t a great film it is very good and worth a look. Being a western, and not much of a shoot ‘em up a that (though the film does have a few action scenes), it’s not the type of film which will break the box office or get much of a wide release. It does have style, a good story, and some very smart (and funny!) dialogue. I’d suggest keeping your eye out for it, and, if it is playing near you, to give this one a try.

Religulous

“I don’t believe in Santa Claus.”
“Of course not, that’s one man flying all around the world and dropping presents down a chimney. One man hearing everybody murmur to him at the same time, that I get.”


In an attempt to better undestand religon, and to make some fun out of the more ridiculous beliefs, Bill Maher takes a trip around the world to discuss relgiion with politicans, scientists, theologians, and the common people. What results is an often funny, though not that enlightening, experience.

Much like Michael Moore, Maher begins his journey with a preconceived outcome - proving the ridiculousness and dangerous nature of all the world’s various religions. Although quite humorous with his quips and various well-placed clips from religious films, he’s mostly preaching to those who already don’t believe in organized religion.

There are quite a few memorable moments where Maher’s point is well-illustrated. One involves the increasing anger he receives from a trucker at a small roadside church who has so much faith it dare not be questioned (in contrast to the other members of the congregation who are very accommodating to Maher’s probing and questions and even end by praying for his soul).

In his various interviews Maher questions some of the more fanciful stories of the Bible (on of his favorite being Noah and the whale), which none of his subjects seem to be able to clarify or explain except through faith.

In a balanced documentary you might see the other side of the argument, the good religious groups do all over the world in terms of public works, charity, and community programs. This isn’t the film Maher wants to make. In trying to prove his point Maher might have been better off speaking a few more theologians as well (the priest he talks with outside the Vatican is one of the film’s best scenes) rather than his trips to a religious theme park and a creationist museum (though that scene is both intensely funny and sad - keep your eye out for the dinosaur with a saddle!).

What we do get is an outrageous film which is meant to push your buttons and incite some conversation. Maher may fail in attempting to bring believers over to his side, but he does, over the course of the flim, make some valid arguments against all religions with similar origins, tales, beliefs, and myths, all of which have a violent and bloody history.

If Maher’s attempt was to create a small humorous film about the absurdities of religion his point is made quite clearly. If however his agenda is to better understand religion and to debunk it completely, which seems to be the case he makes at the end of the film, he is less successful. Whether you like him or not, agree with his point of view or not, I would recommend seeing the film and mulling over the finer points of Maher’s argument. Is religion, is faith, by itself, a good thing? That’s a question worthy of discussion.

Blindness

“That’s impossible, nobody goes blind like that.”


It starts when a single man (Yusuke Iseya) experiences sudden blindness. The condition quickly spreads around the city, and the government quarantines the infected, forcibly sending all of them to a military controlled facility.

The story has a good concept even if it doesn’t ever develop it fully. Based on the novel by Jose Saramango there are two main themes at work here. The first, and less interesting, is how quickly and easily humans devolve into animals given a crisis. Events in the quarantine facility soon destroy social convention and niceties leading to riots over food, war, murder, and rape. Not the prettiest of pictures, even for the blind.

The second theme, which is more engaging yet less developed, involves the the issue of the eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore). Moore’s character alone is immune to the blindness and is our eyes to the horrors that ensue. Here the film has a chance to ask a profound question - which is the worse fate losing your sight or being the only one who can see when everyone else has gone blind? Too bad the this theme gets lost amongst the chaos.

The film chooses to show us only what the victims hear about their situation. Nowhere, except in a small bit of news coverage, is their any news about what the disease is and what is being done to destroy it. There are no scientists or medical personnel at the facility which would seem necessary if any attempt at a cure was to be made. This allows us to feel lost in the world with those infected, but once we’ve given up caring about them we have nothing else to keep our attention.

There are some choices by director Fernando Meirelles which I found odd. Included here are odd camera angles, darkly light scenes, and obstructed views randomly placed throughout the film. Why? Those who are blind can see nothing so whose vantage point is being expressed in these moments? Also, the whiteness scenes which are used to show what the characters can actually see include images which become more clear the closer they appear to the camera. So are these people completely blind (as the script says) or do they have some limited vision (as the camera shows us)?

Also troubling is the lack of a point, moral, or reason for the tale. The film begins, the characters devolve, the world shatters, and they survive. They don’t learn lessons or anything new about themselves, the crisis is never solved by any breakthrough, the characters are not improved by their trials, and the film simply ends. The only point the story seems to make is that humanity can get nasty given such unforeseen circumstances but that’s hardly a new insight even if the theme of blindness might make it appear so for a short time.

The more interesting and personal stories are lost as the film’s characters devolve to such an extent we no longer care what happens to them. It’s rougher scenes are disturbing for the sake of being disturbing without any insight to enlighten the proceedings. Although the acting at the beginning of the film is quite good as the film dissolves into mindlessness so do any character we can identify with or care about. There’s a good concept here and themes worthy of exploration but the execution simply isn’t up to the task. The result is a so-so film filled with the Lord of the Flies style worst of humanity that may not add any insight but will make you feel the need for a long shower.