Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pearls Before Swine

The Boondock Saints
Spoiler Warning!

As the run of The Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day comes to a close at my local theaters, I found myself wondering why in it's weeks available, I found myself with little more than a fleeting interesting in seeing it. Now, the way I see it there are three main reasons to have no interest in a sequel...assuming your a movie addict like me and need a reason not to go to the movies. 1.) It's a second installment of a property that never really caught your attention in the first place. 2.) You are bitter that the sequel got made in the first place for personal reasons i.e. it undermines the original movie (Like if they made Reservoir dogs 2: Vengence). And then there's the third reason which I quickly determined applies: You hated the first movie.
"Hate" is a strong word. I know; that's why I used it. I'm hoping that it's sparing use throughout this blog will bolster it's monosyllabic might and lend it just that much more chance of impressing on you, dear reader, how much I really don't like The Boondock Saints. You might think a movie with Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Billy Connolly (ahem, Mr. MacGregor) would be right up my alley. But in truth it's not the performances that put me off... Well, other than Norman Reedus' atrocious approximation of an Irish accent. No, my friend, it runs much deeper than that.
Where to begin? Simply put, I'm not one who's impressed by religious references. I know in pop culture, especially among my generation it seems, being irreverent is a sure fire way to gain popularity but the ways it's done in TBS it's entirely forced to me. We get it, your religious killers- how many times do we have to watch (swirling in a 360 degree whirlwind I might add) as you pray over a soon to be dead man?
Sure it worked for Jules in Pulp Fiction, but it worked because: 1.) We only hear it twice. 2.) The second time it's said with little pomp, during a monologue in which his entire story arc comes to a head. 3.) It's the only "spiritual" (note the quotation marks) content in the whole movie. 4.) ...Actually we'll come back to four.
The Boondock Saints screams over and over: "Look, we're religious and we shoot stuff!" It's like Troy Duffy saw the one scene from Pulp Fiction and set about writing an entire movie based on it, throwing in a few of his other favorite scenes from it along the way (Ahem, the cat scene) And poof! Five years later, TBS is born. Unfortunately, where one scene like this can be memorable, an entire movie of pseudo-religious nonsense does nothing but tell me that's all the production was banking on. Well, that and bore me.
Now let's go back for number four. 4.) It occurs within a movie that has a tongue in cheek sense about it. This is another problem I have with TBS. Duffy seems to have pulled a Lucas and fallen much to hard for his heroes. The MacManus brothers, played by Flanery and Reedus are portrayed as pure and just, righteous killers who's only fault is that they can't cleanse the world. The movie starts off portraying them with a sense of mirth, but quickly seems to forget how ridiculous it is. With that line blurred, the truly over the top moments that might be really enjoyable if I knew it wasn't serious quickly become "You gotta be kidding me" moments that serve only to take me out of the story.
I think this loss of sense is summed up perfectly in the "Man on the street" reactions the play behind the credits. Their filmed in a "media" style that's far to close to reality for my taste, further deposing the thought that it's all in good fun. Watching them, I see Duffy's realization that he's done exactly what I accuse him of. He uses them to try and make it seem like he's leaving you to your own conclusions, but I am not fooled. He's spent the entire movie whispering in my ear.
And then there's the racial implications, and no- I'm not just talking about the "Coke" joke. To be honest, that scene did little to offend me. If I couldn't stand the N-word (even as unnecessarily as it's used here) I'd have to hate movies like the afore mentioned Reservoir Dogs, but I don't because the word exists and the fact is there are people who still use it, as unfortunate as that might be. And even beyond that the joke told is a universal one. One of those one-size-fits-all jokes where all of the names can be switched with any of them getting the punch-line: "A Jedi, a Sith, and an Imperial officer find a magic lamp..."
No, what I mean by the racial implications is the Irish-centric fervor that permeates the entire movie. Throughout it's length, veritably every character that's not of Irish decent is made out to be a complete moron, and ends up dead by the time the credits role. The only exception being Detective Smecker, who may be portrayed as smart (and allowed to survive) but is also shown to be a cross-dressing, self-hating homosexual- something that's obviously meant to be an insult. You have a character like Rocco who proves to be a bit lovable, but he's also a bumbling idiot and doesn't live to see the credits. And then there's the finale with the red-haired witness (dressed in white I might add) at the courthouse...
Now, it's not like TBS is alone in this. We see the same thing with white characters in movies like Dances with Wolves. We see the same thing with non-Italian characters in a movie like GoodFellas. I mean let's get real, the only black character in that movie is a crackhead who's eventually executed for being a moron. So why love one but fault the other? Well, that brings us back to something we talked about earlier. With Goodfellas, Italian may be the decent of choice, but those characters who are of it aren't portrayed like cape wearing super heroes. Henry Hill isn't our savior, he's just the guy telling the story. And that's the difference for, between good story telling and propaganda. Take it or leave it.
According to, TBS grossed a little over $30,400 domestically. That's from a $6 million dollar budget. Now, I know this movie is said to have a "cult" following, and I'll back that a bit, as the sequel has grossed more than $10.1 million dollars from an $8 million dollar budget, as of the beginning of the week (it's still in theaters). So the improvement is there, I would say that it's obvious some of those fans returned. But, let's compare it to some of the other movies we've mentioned in this article. Goodfellas grossed upwords of $46.8 million dollars, but I couldn't find a budget for it. Pulp Fiction, a movie that also claims a cult following, grossed $107.9 million dollars from a budget of $8 million. So I think we can all agree that $30,400 is a bit underwhelming, yes?
That I'm swine- well, that's debatable. The Boondock Saints being pearls however, is an easy call on my end: It's not. However, truth be told, this movie is one of those that seems to be very divisive. When asked for their thoughts on it people tend to either hail it as the best thing since fruit in Jell-o, or beat around the bush before condemning it as a waste of their time. Though I guess there is a the third, rather common option: people who have no idea what your talking about.
What do you think?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Book of Eli

"Are you listening to me son? I'm giving ya pearls here!"

In a scorched world Eli walks alone, carrying a book countless people have died for- including the ones one man has killed trying to get it.

It's no secret that nine out of ten post apocalypse story lines are more or less westerns. Or, that many of them blur together. It is into this world the The Book of Eli is born, fighting to scratch a place for itself among it's kind. For the most part it achieves this, but not for lack of familiar plot points.
After an intriguing view into his life, we follow the mysterious wanderer into a new town where he attempts to mind his own buisiness but winds up killing a hand full of underlings (a common mistake). This inevitably catches the attention of the resident despot. Being the mysterious wanderer that he is, he inevitably pisses Mr. Despot off and escapes back into the wild west where upon Mr. D, in a world where barely anything works and nothing works well, goes after him in a fleet of not only functioning but armored vehicles.
I'm over simplifying of course but my point is clear. That the meat of The Book of Eli is something you've tasted before is not necessarily a death sentence; in truth it may be what makes it work. For the most part you can spend the entire movie pointing at scenes and calling out titles that came before, but on each piece there's a new spin which, when you put it all together, is a decent amount of new along with the recycled. This is the trick to amalgamation movies such as this: re-use is fine if you keep it fresh. I can think of more than one movie that could learn a thing or two from Eli.... You know who you are.
Denzel Washington's performance is less than his best but more than enough to carry the role. Top notch or not, Washington finds a way to endear the title character to you: an expected result given it's one of his three character archetypes: "the stoic hero" (see also the "smooth talking cop" and the "torn military officer"). Gary Oldman follows a rather similar path as the man in charge, Carnegie (a name that hints writer Gary Whitta is well aware of the western tones the movie carries). He gives only half the layered performance we've come to expect- but more than the role needs to stay afloat. Mila Kunis's performance hit or miss, in the end I say she gives the best for what she got, as her character seems a bit underwritten.
This is Whitta's first script to see production, an impressive feat considering it is much more nuanced than any of the performances. That the story rises above it's parts is a testament to his talent, and I'm interested to see what else he can do. His well written script, however, seems a bit off kilter with the Hughes Brothers offerings of action. The action sequences are extremely well done, but seem a little over the top for the mood set by the rest of the piece. The good news is they are kept in check in terms of length (some going by blindingly fast for all the pomp they're ushered in with), which along with the fact that they're limited in number keeps them far away from drowning the story.
On a more personal note, I must say that the hardcore feminist may want to avoid this movie as it really has nothing to offer them. For the glimpses of empowerment we see on the part of the female characters, we spend much more time watching them be ordered, owned, saved or manipulated. In the Eli's defense however the same could be said for most of the men. And at least we don't see the women acting like feral soulless animals. That the world the characters inhabit is a savage one is a message captured in the typical ways: Wanton rape and murder; this is borrowed set piece that no one bother to freshen.
The Book of Eli is a respectable if not down right enjoyable entry into a genre that can so often come out perfectly bland. It's mis-steps are forgivable, which is more than I can say for a lot of it's peers. At some points it doesn't seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be, but the story powers through for the win in the end. This is Eli's strongest attribute, and what makes it worth a viewing.

The Reel Deal Recommends:
Virtuosity: Washington in a wonderful action flick.
The Fifth Element: An awesomely over the top villain from Oldman.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall: A hilarious rom-com with Kunis feeling a bit more natural.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Lovely Bones

"I'm someone you can trust, I'm a movie producer."

A young girl watches the lives of her family and her killer continue after she's raped and murdered, trying to balance her own attachments and want for revenge against wanting her family to heal.

The Lovely Bones is an adaptation of Alice Sebold's best selling novel about grief and healing. The screenplay, penned by Phillipa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and director Peter Jackson, is one that for all that cannot make the translation to cinema makes clear it's endeavor to be faithful to most of the main points and themes of the book, which unfortunately include the ending. That endevour, however, is not a complete success, and one cannot help but feel like some important points were missed.
A relative unknown when she was offered the part, the native born (Ireland raised) Saoirse Ronan leads the cast as Susie Salmon. Ronan's strongest virtue in the film is her ability to offer a bit of grounding to predominantly virtual after-life world she spends most of the movie in. She handles her scenes without ever letting on that the computers had yet to do their magic when they were filmed. An impressive feat for such a young actress (Ronan turns 16 this April).
The scenes are visually affecting but often refuse to gel with the rest of the production, making for what can often feel like two separate movies. I would make the argument that that is not a wholly flawed feature however, given the parallel worlds the film inhabits, often simultaneously. The imaginative sequences swirl and transform, often shifting pallets fluidly and quickly to match Salmon's moods. More conventional audiences will fault the movie for what I call a cinematic gamble that payed off well. But beautiful as the may be the question lingers, is it really what was needed for the story?
The real-world counterpoints don't deliver nearly as much in the way of satisfaction. The supporting cast, led by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, and those two especially as Jack and Abigail Salmon, often miss their marks. I felt as though I never really got a chance to see them as Susie saw them, characters worthy of more than just my surface sympathy for their tragedy, as their characters individual ways of coping are more explained than embodied. Wahlberg and Weisz just can't seem to nail down their performances, while Grandma Lynn is well performed but often seems out of place.
Rising above all this however is Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, Susie's killer. Tucci is simply spell binding as the dark loner. He finds ways of getting the simplest movements to make the the audience feel uncomfortable, but does so as though it's second nature. He plays the predator with a sort of refinement, never offered the flamboyance of Hannibal Lector but putting across just as much menace.
The willingness to linger over places other adapters might have over looked -Harvey's past, Susie's sisters vigilantism- speaks to Peter Jackson's dedication. The choices made in altering the books storyline for the sake of the film are, fo rthe most part, smart ones. Certain moments that speak to the heart of the story are front and center, like Susie witnessing her sister's first kiss. Other screenwriters or Directors might have left this scene to the literary world, but this is a film about life- and overt attempts to treat it as such are all around.
That The Lovely Bones climax seems, at points, completely out of whack speaks to the accuracy the adaptation- as this is exactly how I felt about some of the novel's conclusions as well. Both seem to trip over sentiment on their way to a more reality based fair, as unsatisfying at that sometimes is. Certain scenes work for the stories metaphor for what rape does to the lives of victims, but not for the story itself.
The Lovely Bones is an ambitious undertaking in terms of production, and in those terms it succeeds. It's taught with emotional set pieces and reproduces thick tension over an over again- but can't capture the piece as a whole. It's biggest fault lays in the performances. Ronan and Tucci deliver, but the supporting cast can't seem to keep up. Peter Jackson's name has become a rather dependable one of late- but The Lovely Bones is not quite a shining example of his successes.

Reel Deal Recommends:
Atonement: Saoirse Ronan was nominated for an academy award for this wrenching drama.
Julie & Julia: Tucci gives a beautiful performance as the supportive Paul Child.
The Departed: A great movie and easily Mark Wahlberg's most enjoyable performance.
The Fountain: Rachel Weisz in another FX driven tale of mourning.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Youth In Revolt

"Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee."

An adaptation of C.D. Paynes novel, which follows Nick Twisp - a less than confident boy- who upon meeting a girl vows to do any and everything in his power to have her... Even become someone else.

In reviewing this movie I am reminded of seven words that plagued me as a child, and even more as a younger man: "Good things come to those who wait."
Youth In Revolt stumbles out of the gate, leaving the audience to believe it's just another "awkward teen" titillation piece bent on showing anyone under 25 as as an intercourse obsessed psychopath driven only by the need to orgasm... Ok, well it kind of is exactly that, but in a way that strangely works. I think most who've made it out the other side can remember that awkward way that sex and love can become tangled up together. Half the time we couldn't tell which thought was which (a problem some adults still suffer from).
In a rather self aware way, Youth In Revolt captures that- and does so in, what is eventually, a hilarious way. Unfortunately you'll have to wait a bit to get there. Even more unfortunately, a few moments of that "bit" are the horribly off-putting opening scene of the film, and one of two jarringly out of place animated sequences.
Michael Cera, as the graceless Nick Twisp brings a tiny bit of new to a mack truck load of old. Conversely, he takes full advantage of his first opportunity to break his typecast as the unendingly clean and cold Francois Dillinger. The interplay between the two is always entertaining, and though I could have gone for more I think it's better I'm left wanting then wishing I had stopped a half hour ago. Also full of chemistry is Portia Doubleday as Sheeni Saunders, who plays the manipulative tease more accurately then anyone wants to admit they know. That you spend the entire movie trying pin whether she really is interested in Nick is a testimony to her performance- as it seems even Sheeni doesn't quite know for certain until the third act.
The beauty of both Twisp and Saunders (as well as characters like Vijay and Trent) is their fundamental satire. Almost all of the teenage characters are written in the most classically dramatic way possible, their dialogue presenting more like characters from Great Expectations than high school freshmen. This sets them beautifully at odds with their immature actions and the plain speaking parental/adult figures (who are all playe dby faces you'll know, though sadly they are underwhelming roles). That the movie is aware of this is made clear by the ending, as it begins cracking jokes at it's own expense and to my personal delight.
With all that said, there are some odd choices writer Gustin Nash made with Cera's character. I mentioned earlier he plays a dual role, Twisp and Francois Dillinger, a "supplementary" personality he creates because he feels he is not devious enough on his own to achieve his goals. However, both before and after this is done, there are scenes where Twisp- seemingly without the aid of his alternate self- rattles off witty retorts or spur of the moment manipulations that seem like they should belong to Dillinger. This of course is a relatively minor detail within Nash's otherwise well written adaptation, and wasn't nearly enough to spoil the rest.
That there's plenty of coarse (read:sexual) humor is without argument, but there are only a couple of times (one being that wretched opening) that it seems wholly uncalled for. There is enough clever scripting to warrant a few dick and fart jokes without the movie feeling like it's circling the bowl. If your sensitive to that sort of material however, I would suggest you start paying attention to the ratings system- as you probably shouldn't be seeing rated R movie in the first place.
Miguel Arteta's feature film follow up to The Good Girl is most definitely a departure in story, but not in it's quality. I'm sure that some of the humor will put viewers off, and anyone who goes in looking for another Superbad will leave sorely disappointed. Though Youth In Revolt lacks that movies uproariously funny nature, it gains in it's subtlety and tongue in cheek presentation. To say that Youth In Revolt is not for everyone is to offer neither praise nor demerit, but despite it's flaws Youth In Revolt most certainly was for me.

(That this is a sad under-use of Fred Willards talents could go without saying... but won't.)

The Reel Deal Recommends:
Juno: For Michael Cera in another movie that offers a bit more depth out of the high school comedy.
This is my first run-in with Portia Doubleday. Let me know if you have any recommendations.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Quality Romantic Comedies
Spoiler Warning!

Believe it or not I'm actually a fan of good romantic comedy. I know many people would laugh upon hearing me say that but honestly, how could I claim any interest in American cinema and then unabashedly despise one of it's most stable fixtures? No, I believe in the romantic comedy, I just think it's a genre that's suffering.
This is one genre in particular that's relatively bankable. Hollywood knows "the formula", and they know that as long as they choose two decently known names to plug into it they'll make some money. This can make for some unfortunate moments when standards are less than upheld... and even more where good storytelling is sacrificed for that warm fuzzy ending.
So in defense of the romantic comedy I offer this list full of movies that sailed clear of the bar. Now, it would be easy for me to fill this Five!! with all the delightfully "off-beat" entries I've seen over the years- but I think that would take away from the point. So instead I've limited it to only movies that follow the formula, as proof that that doesn't mean they can't still be interesting. My apologies to 500 Days of Summer, your just to inventive for this list.
In no particular order:
When Harry Met Sally...
In one of the few movies me and genre junkies agree on, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan lead us through scene after scene of material that would be copied nearly to death, even after more than twenty years. But unlike many of the "me too" films to follow, this is quality cinema from start to finish. The beauty of Nora Ephron's screenplay is that it's just as much about the world of relationships as it is specifically the title character's, and along with their story we are exposed to numerous other relationship successes and failures.
The comedy is strong, and rarely sexual (which makes the sexual comedy hit even harder), deciding instead to thrive off observational relationship humor. Most importantly, at the end of the movie you feel as though this couple and the events that brought them together really could have happened. These are believable characters in believable situations (well ok, other than the deli scene), and because the two main characters actually get to know each other their love rings with a bit more truth by the time we hear it said out loud.

Imagine Me and You
Monogamy is a funny thing in romantic comedies. It (or rather the lack there of) is just as often used to amplify the "romance" as it is to paint a character as repugnant. I personally am almost immediately put off by "cheater" story lines as they're usually used to create conflict where honesty would have solved the conflict days ago. I find myself saying: "Just leave them if you don't want them," but sadly the characters never listen.
Enter Ol Parker's Imagine Me and you. What makes this movie work for me is the conscience the characters display. Do they do the wrong things at times? Absolutely. Do they let that stop them from doing the right thing? No they do not. I love this movie because it shows a side of love this genre isn't always happy to bring out: loving someone enough to let them go.
Lena Headey and Piper Perabo lead the cast (which includes Anthony Head!), but I would like to take this moment to recognize Matthew Goode. If I'm going to take the time to bash movies like the sleep inducing Leap Year, it's only fair that I point out the beautiful performance Goode offers in Imagine Me and You. It's only fitting that this handsome Englishmen be in one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, considering he now appears on my list of most hated as well.

The American President
Rob Reiner (That's two for those counting) directs a movie that deserves praise if only for providing a role in which Michael Douglas doesn't come across as utterly creepy. Another reason it gets my vote is that it's about more than just the relationships within it. It's certainly no Micheal Moore pundit-fest, but for a movie of it's genre it offers a great deal of political insight, subtle as it may be (it was written by Aaron Sorkin, who would go on to create the critically acclaimed series The West Wing).
As if Annete Bening as a lead isn't enough; Martin Sheen, Michael J. fox, and Richard Dreyfuss are the highlights among an electric supporting cast. And when it comes time for conflict, the "boy royally pisses off girl" fight is not only over a believable reason, it's actually relevant to the story in it's entirety with the entire cast in conflict along with our two lovers. This shifts the emotional weight of the film onto the bigger story which serves not only to elevate the romance but the entire movie, and also to make me cheer every time I watch that final press conference.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
I know a lot of people would disagree with this choice but what can I say- it's my list not theirs. outside of being peppered with hilarious musical comedy, I love the way this movie apologetically explores how (illogically) miserable break ups can make us. How we'll do anything for even a few moments of relief- even though the things we try usually blow up in our face.
Not only does the movie capture the often hard to explain but universally known "politics" of breaking up- it also expresses the healing process in true terms. In the end, the conflict between the endearing and relateable Peter (played by Jason Segel who also wrote the film) and Rachael (Mila Kunis, who has apparently done a great deal of blossoming since playing the annoying Jackie on That 70's Show) comes from the fact that Peter has not mourned and moved on from his failed relationship. Instead of Rachael miraculously healing him he has to go home, get his life together, and move on from Sarah Marshall before he can offer a real relationship.
And one more quick point: I love that this movie gives Sarah (Kristen Bell) a chance to point out all the things Peter did to contribute to the relationships demise. To quote Segel: "Anyone can write a diatribe on how horrible their ex is." Marshall is aware of itself enough to say there there is rarely an innocent victim in any break up. Points awarded.

Love Actually
Here's a movie that not only brings us the story of a relationship, it does so eight times over. From the Prime Minister to a poor twenty-something, from unrequited to brotherly- Love Actually takes a look at love from nearly every angle (I still don't get how a movie with such a broad approach managed to dodge any homosexual content). And even with all these angles the movies only contrived point is really one of it's truest. That the separate stories of this movie are eventually revealed to be not so separate, rings true in that throughout our lives relationships intersect and overlap in ways we don't even know about. Despite it's holiday theme, this is a universal story. The time of year means nothing, just like where your coming from means nothing. And with dialogue able to inspire warm feelings without making you feel completely manipulated, this movie is highly accessible. Love Actually has something to offer even the hatiest of genre haters.

Honorable Mentions: Romancing the Stone, 500 Days of Summer, Knocked Up, Shallow Hal, Run Fat Boy Run, Joe Versus the Volcano
Thank you Youtube. Thank you Nninchen91, Americanpresicent , and Yungkelvision for your posts. The Reel Deal, of course, owns the right to nothing.

If you have any you think deserve to be one the list, feel free to leave comments!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Instant Cassette

This weekend the Bluray player saw a lot of action, which was partially due to a desperate attempt to get rid of some Netflix titles that had been lingering for weeks (curse moving!) and the fact that I let resolution #3 get way out of hand at Target yesterday. But, for better or worse, that made today seem like an excellent time to make good on another resolution and bring back Instant Cassette!

This weekend I finally got a chance to watch District B13, a french action film pumped so full of energy it nearly tripped the circuit breakers. It does action right, offering enough plot to justify it's existence while not so much that we get tied up in it and resent the action. And ooh is there ever action. Not only is it chalk full of free-running goodness, it also offers us action sequences filmed from angles that show us everything that's going on, a feature often lacking in american action films. I find myself wondering if the success of this movie has anything to do with how the action sequences were filmed for the up-coming Book of Eli. If so, I must imagine the movie is better for it. We'll see friday
Queue it.

Also on the list was 9, a star-studded spiritual successor to the short film of the same name. It offers a surprising amount of heart for a movie only 80 minutes long, and tells it's dark story through gorgeous visuals, and often little else. That I could have used a little more story from the movie is a debatable note; it could be said that we know, in terms of details, what the characters know about the world they awoke to- very little. All said, it's well worth a viewing.
Queue it.

Second Run
6 years later The Machinist is still affecting, even beyond Bale's disturbing transformation. As an ex-insomniac this movie still speaks to me; I wondered if it would now that I've made it through that part of my life. This is certainly one of those movies where you catch something new every time through, as enthralling as the story may be. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the experience.
Queue it.

Today's Breakout Title: Julie & Julia
This is a movie I thoroughly enjoyed for, among many other reasons, it's simplicity. We are offered a window into the life of two separate women, from two separate times, united by the one thing they could know they had in common- that is exactly what we get. On top of that, we are treated to a movie where not one, but two husbands are supportive and thoughtful, a true rarity these days.
We also get, from Meryl Streep, a deft balance of the need to encompass the oddly ostentatious euphemisms of Julia Child, and the danger of falling over the edge into early Old School Carey-esque overacting. She delivers both an exhausting exuberance and a fleeting, tempered sorrow with the kind of skill that makes it seem absolutely simple.
And then there's Amy Adams...
I think I needed this movie this weekend. I needed it to remind me that the vacuous and uninspired crap (yes, crap) I witnessed Friday was the exception for her, not the rule. This is an actress who's biggest talent seems to be making audiences love her; from the timid assistant, to the impressionable young nun, to the misguided mistress endeavouring to be better- even as the girl who'll eat anything on that episode of Smallville. Even in Leap Year she works her magic, in that case simply making the movie bearable. Amy Adams oozes charm, Julie & Julia is elegant proof of this.
I can see where some may say it runs a bit long, but it doesn't run long for lack of meat like many other movies, and it is most assuredly not a deal breaking flaw... if you can even call it that. Any one who can make it through a movie with no explosions will benefit from it's dose of heart-warming entertainment. Your Netflix queue will be a better place with Julie & Julia on board.

It feels good to have Instant Cassette back on duty, don't you agree? We'll end with the new additions to the house library starting with Christmas and working forward. Please don't judge me pertaining to the embarrassingly high number. Sadly, I've still yet to track down a Bluray copy of Bladerunner, but I will not rest until I have victory. Be sure to come back for Five!! later this week!

  • Star Trek
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Terminator Salvation
  • The Ugly Truth*
  • 28 Days Later
  • Julie & Julia
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen*
  • Point Break
  • Reservoir Dogs
*These are titles voted upon by residents and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reel Deal.


"I want some more."

In a world where vampire's are the dominant presence, a race is on to find a blood substitute before the supply of human blood runs out- a supply farmed from hunted and captured humans.

The first 10 minutes of Daybreakers had me convinced I was about to experience an undead Gattaca. Silently it made claims of exploring the inner workings of mainstream society of vampires. The social and emotional ramifications of a world where no one ages, no one gets sick, and there is only one viable source of food: the very people that this new population inherited it's society from. The very culture that everyone was once a part of. I was almost literally foaming at the mouth with anticipation.
And then a character randomly explodes in a shower of carnage- cut to me, heaving a disheartened sigh.
In terms of story this scene should evoke a sense of desperation and disappointment, but it was done with such a flare for the ridiculous that half the theater, including me, couldn't help but laugh through the tense aftermath.
In what is both a evidence for the defense and the prosecution, Daybreakers maintains this odd back and forth throughout a decent part of it's 98 minutes. Subtle observations on how a world like this might differ from (or resemble) our own are constantly seen back to back with garish, gory, action fodder. This is a feature I could live with were there some semblance of balance for the two sides. Unfortunately the Spierig Brother's blood lust proves unquenchable, especially in the finale, which takes that sad- though well shot- left turn*.
The performances are strong, if underwhelming and far from the best I've seen out of the likes of Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe (who plays his typical, idiosyncratic character- though it feels a bit forced this time around). Although I must give the brothers points for resisting those same, done-to-death lines when they find themselves in cinematically familiar situations, they have the occasional affinity for out of place monologues, that try to offer depth or insight but fall flat as a week old Coke.
Though rife with small social observations (my favorite being that in a society of the undead everyone smokes), Daybreakers doesn't endeavor to take it's subject any deeper. And the over the top action ranges from occasionally tense to mostly campy, with little to make up the mid-range. There will always be a place for the empty headed actioner, this is something I am will never petition. But I think, and stop me if I'm wrong here, we have enough shallow supernatural to go around these days. That within celestial tale of Twilight a movie featuring the undead so prevalently must set itself apart is understandable. But do so by giving your film depth. Do so by filling it with a social relevance that teen love can't rival, not by pumping it full of corn syrup and severed heads.
If an act of God had killed the theaters power after the films opening I'd be tentatively telling you all how the fires of hope had been stoked inside me. That if the rest of the movie was anything like the opening- Daybreakers could miraculously shape up to be a preternatural White Man's Burden. As it stands, that's still the movie I want to see. Had it not bothered with any insight at all, it could have just been a fun action jaunt. But Daybreakers made the mistake of showing me it could do better, and now I'm holding it to that standard.

*The Left Turn: The point in which a movie, faced with a proverbial choice between action and substance (usually pertaining to the final act) chooses action- to it's detriment. I'm giving you the definition here, so I won't have to explain it again when it inevitably comes up again.
Example: I am Legend

Reel Deal recommends:
Gattaca: Ethan Hawke in a breath taking bit social commentary via science fiction.
Event Horizon: Disturbing sci-fi/horror that will make you hate Sam Neill.
American Psycho: A bloody take on corporate America starring Willem Dafoe.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Leap Year

"What an amazing smell you've discovered!"

Unwilling to wait for her boyfriend to propose to her, a young woman decides to follow him to Dublin and propose to him instead on February 29th. But when her flight is forced down early, she'll recruit anyone willing to help her cross country- even the not so friendly inn keeper.

Leap Year is, in a word: uninspired. In two: wholly uninspired.
I'll try to keep this short, if only to spare the cast and crew, but where do I even begin? To say this is a paint by numbers rom-com is to insult the many amazing pictures you can paint using numbers. This movie is the screenplay equivalent of Frankenstein's monster, built completely from the pieces of bigger more successful movies and electrocuted into existence in a dank, disturbing laboratory.
While it makes an effort to seem endearingly quirky, the quirks themselves are even recognizable, as well as the set pieces. If not familiar from unrelated films, they're familiar familiar from this writing teams last attempt, the box-office flop Made of Honor. In case you've never heard of it, Made of Honor stars Patrick Dempsey as a professional bachelor who chases his friend to Ireland in hopes of marrying her. Hmmmmm...
Despite both playing their parts well, Amy Adams (as the prissy beauty) and Matthew Goode (as the jerk with a heart of gold) can't seem to strike a spark together. They bicker well, but beyond that don't cause much of a stir. It doesn't help that every situation they're put in feels as forced as the movies ending; many stories progress to an conclusion that makes sense, this one feels more like it's trying to justify the sugary ending they already had picked out.
Wholly uninspired; I don't know if there's a better pair of words for this movie. As romantic comedies go Leap Year offers nothing in the way of the former, and rare flashes of the latter. Genre gluttons will undoubtedly find something to love, but the pickings will be slim. Anyone else will be well suited to steer clear.

Reel Deal Recommends:
Doubt: Stellar performances all around, including Adams.
Watchmen: A strong adaptation featuring a beautiful performance from Goode.

Up in the Air

"Is your mommy a docter? A scientific researcher of some kind? Well then she's hardly a credible expert is she?"

A determined bachelors crisis of career quickly becomes a crisis of lifestyle.

That Up in the Air's premise is poignant is not up for debate, but beyond it's relevance given the economic conditions we live in, it struck me as a bit unremarkable.
Usually I try to use references to other movies sparingly, and even then I rarely see them while still sitting in the theater; but by the end of Up in the Air there were other titles flashing like neon lights in my head. Three to be exact: Garden State, Sideways, and Thank You for Smoking (which I would later find out was also supplied a screenplay and directed by Jason Reitman). Three great movies to be sure, but movies I'm not sure would be as good spliced together on the same reels.
All of these movies were so good because they targeted all of their attention at one theme, exploring that topic as far as it could enjoyably go. Thank You for Smoking brings us the fast-talking Nick Naylor, a man who makes a living off the suffering of others. In Sideways we follow a man as he goes through what is essentially n on the road coming of age story played out 25 years later. And with Garden State we follow a man home to a family he's been avoiding it for decades.
In Up in the Air we meet the fast-talking Ryan Bingham, a man who makes a living off the suffering of others, as he goes through what is essentially an on the road coming of age story played out 25 years later and eventually to a home he's been avoiding for decades.
Now please don't get me wrong: that the movie has story elements in common with others is far far from a crime. I'm simply calling examples of how it's story elements should have been presented to make them work. I guess all that was the time consuming way of saying that Up in the Air is, in terms of story, a jack of all trades, but a master of none. It doesn't seem to know what story it wants to tell so it tells a few, and in splitting it's focus they all suffer. Sorry, sometimes you just have to take the long way around.
It doesn't help that all the stories it's trying to tell revolve around one leading man, a weight George Clooney doesn't handle well. He's a good cast for Superman, but not Clark Kent. He -in typical Clooney fashion- excells as the fast talker, but can't seem to bring vulnerable in for a landing.
Conversely, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick make short work of their roles, playing them pitch perfect. It's their performances that earn Clooney the emotional currency he needs to buy the audiences sympathy as the story progresses. In a movie so focused on it's leading man, it can be easy for the leading man to carry the entire piece. With Up in the Air, it's the supporting cast that carry him.
I know I'm in the minority on this movie, and I'm alright with that. That this movie will probably go on to claim award after award seems a given to me. However, I wonder if those awards won't be given based more on it's allusions to social climate than anything else. In my opinion the only one it deserves is Best Supporting Cast.

Watcher X says: "She was a bitch, but I liked it."

Reel Deal Recommends:
Burn After Reading: A spectacular movie full of quirky Clooney.
The Departed: An Academy award winning remake with the beautiful Vera Farmiga.
Rocket Science: A young Anna Kendrick gives an awesome performance in a movie you should definitely see.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ponderings in the Middle of the Night

I often find myself observing myself within the culture, trying to figure out where certain pieces of pop/culture come from. Everything has an origin right? And a lot of the time I think the answers are in plain view, we just have to connect the dots. Or really I do, because most people probably already have. It wouldn't be the first time I was late to the party.
There's a decent amount of criticism out there that points a finger at cinema as a medium and accuses the better part of it's ideas of being recycled. "There are no new stories," they say. The most recent lightning-rod for all of this has been James Cameron's newest juggernaut Avatar. That the story has been done before is pretty much a given. The most obvious parallel is, of course, Dances With Wolves- which has been repeated to utter death since it's first screenings.
With it's obvious ecological shadings many have pointed out that the movie bares (on paper) a striking resemblance to 92's FernGully: The Last Rainforest. And really the list only starts there: The Last Samurai, Point break, Eastern Promises, Smurfette from the Smurfs; the parallels are all there and those are just the ones off the top of my head- and even then just within cinema! So why do so many stories seem to re-occur in our culture? I think there's a very simple answer this question: They work. And I don't necessarily mean they earn money (though that's certainly part of it). I mean they work for us, as a people.
Case and point: Last week my girlfriend and I moved into a condo. As far as our needs it's pretty much a dream come true; everything we put on the checklist we made when we started thinking about moving is here- and then some. But since we moved in, I've found that I'm not sleeping all that great, and still am not exactly comfortable here when the lights are all down. I've never been one to spook in the dark but there's just a feeling of unease -however slight- that settles over me when we turn the lights out for the night. Upon mentioning this to her she told me she feels the exact same way, and hasn't been sleeping to well either.
The simple answer here is, of course, that we just need time to settle in mentally and that most "new" places can seem creepy because your not used to all the little noises they bring to the table. However, as I ponder these happenings (because that's all I really do), I thought of all the movies I'd seen that follow this very same plot. Young couple moves into a "dream home" only to find it's not what they expected. And for whatever reason the general feeling of unease quickly escalates into a scream-fest.
Now again, you can point your finger at the dozens of movies that follow this plot line and scream about how there's no originality. But I don't think these story lines get repeated out of laziness or greed (for the most part), I think they get repeated out of their universal appeal. who hasn't moved into a new place and been a little creeped out by it? Good cinema is just life inflated for closer study afterall.
More over, the main source of the trouble in these movies is usually some form of undead being. Now I'm not going sit here and write a manifesto about the human minds affinity for toying with and exploring things it doesn't understand, but beyond that I think the reason for the connection between this plot line and spiritual or undead antagonists is that a provides for happenings that can't necessarily be explained and that sense of unease can be given a source outside of the characters mind. Couple member A is alone in the basement and the door slams shut, or their are odd scratching sounds. Couple member A runs to get couple member B, only to have B study the door, or wait to hear the sounds and find nothing. B looks at A and says: "Your still getting used to the new place, that's all."
Now in real life that's where the story ends because B has just hit the nail on the head. And maybe the rest of the movie is a metaphor for the couples own fears and insecurities in their own relationship. But I digress; what is cinema if not real life in hyperbole?
The best stories are the ones that we can relate to. Stories we emotionally understand through experience, at least at their roots. Moving into a new place and feeling a bit uncomfortable. Coming to understand- or even love- something we may have feared or hated. We've all been there; people go through these things all the time. And writers are people (for the most part), so in drawing on their own experiences, certain stories are unavoidably told again.
The truly great writers just find a better way to explain something everyone tries to put words to. Or they explain it in a way that allows us to see it from another angle- while still recognizing it. But there in lays the rub right? Because different people see things better from different angles. Not every way to tell the story is going to speak to everyone- that's a given. And this is why I don't think it's completely wrong to see these basic story lines repeat. Dances with Wolves speaks to you, the way Avatar speaks to John Doe, they way The Last Samurai speaks to me. But at the end of the day, we all love the same story because we all relate to it.
In a perfect world you, Joe, and I would sit down and watch some more movies together I think. We could try and find out if there are anymore stories we all had in common. We could explore our histories, maybe even become great friends. We could even do it tonight, because this condo is f'ing creepy and it's not like I'll be going to sleep anytime soon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

"Phone call... It's. Your. Mother."

Amidst mystery and intrigue, Holmes must come to terms with the fact that Watson is leaving him- possibly for good.

You may not realise it, but you've actually already seen Sherlock Holmes. Or at least, you've seen most of the good parts. This movie is the latest to fall victim to what I've come to call the "Milk For Free" preview. Loosely translated, it means you saw all the best parts of Sherlock Holmes in the trailer.
This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing worth while in the full length film. The most entertaining thing about the movie is the odd couple pairing of Jude Law as the straight laced, ex-military Watson, and Robert Downey Jr. as the brilliant and therefore eccentric Sherlock Holmes.
Both make the roles pop, Jr. only tweaking his usual wit at the speed of light, foot in my mouth portrayal. I may not sound like I'm singing praises but the fact is it never gets old, even after two and a half hours. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie does.
It's not that it's badly made or written, it's just that somehow the movie seems a bit standard. Watching Sherlock Holmes feels a bit like a phone conversation with your mother: "Oh hey! ...I'm fine, you? ... Good ...OK ...uh-huh ...No ...Oh that's funny! ...yup ...alright that sounds good ...Love you too. Bye." As a matter of fact I guess it's even more like that than I thought because your still glad you did it, even if nothing really happened.
To say Sherlock Holmes isn't Guy Ritchie's best film really isn't an insult either. With a filmography that includes Snatch. , Rock'n Rolla and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels that's pretty much like saying Minority Report isn't your favorite Spielberg film. Still, he does some beautiful things with this film, not the least of which is snatching slow-motion back from the frothing jaws of bullet-time, which seems to be the only thing anyone wants to use it for anymore.
The mysteries are certainly true to the style of Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle's writing. And the re-imagining of Holmes into a capable fighter who uses his brilliance to fuel his brutal martial arts is interesting (and beautifully filmed), but it's just not enough to make me recommend this movie. In Rachel McAdam's character we are offered what feels like a rather interesting bit of back story headed our way, but it's left at just that- a feeling. Standing alone this is an interesting choice, but placed in an already lean movie it feels a bit like a tease.
To everyone who asks me I tell them that unless they love one of the leading men it could be worth relegating to home theater status. But I consider myself a bit of a fan of Robert Downey Jr. and still was unimpressed. Sherlock Holmes doesn't do anything wrong in so many words, it just lacks that certain tang to pique interest. While the movie certainly wasn't a waste of my money or my time, in the end I'd say my favorite choices for the main characters are still Data and Geordi LaForge.

Reel Deal Recommends:
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: A seriously great film starring Jr. that not nearly enough people saw.
Road to Perdition: Jude Law stepping out of his usual in a hugely moving story.
Time Traveler's Wife: McAdams helps prove that good sci-fi has a heart.
Resolving Resolutions with Resolute Resolution
Warning: 2010 spoilers!
Oh, what would a blog be without a post about new years resolutions? Resolutionless, that's what it would be. And while I have, of course, set some personal resolutions (stop kicking puppies, tell more people that crack is whack- that sort of thing), but I'm going to spare you all of that and get straight to the important stuff: Movies.
So, these are my movie resolutions for 2010.
1.) See more Independent and Foreign films.
When I first moved to Chicago, I used to love dragging Watcher X down the red-line to the one theater that both played first run Independent and Foreign films, and was remotely close to my apartment. I still remember being floored by The Last Mistress, and utterly appalled by Blood: The Last vampire in it's questionably comfortable seats.
But then our $5 theater re-opened and we got busy, and before I new it we hadn't been there in almost a year. I miss it. While my "only foreign films" phase ended at 20, I still enjoy them. So this year, we're going back! To the dismay of the aforementioned company.
2.) Bring back Instant Cassette.
Originally Instant Cassette was moth-balled when I went through a "re-discovery" rental phase. I was queueing up a lot of older movies I'd missed, and re-watching some I hadn't seen in years (I'm still to young to say "decades", and "decade" just sounds silly). But as the new-borns have re-entered my lists I think it's time old girl came back- not to mention I've still got stuff to say about the old titles.
3.) Expand my movie library.
This one is already underway as four (count 'em, 4) titles have made their way onto the floating shelves in the living-room since Christmas. That's two a week. Now obviously that's a pace I can't keep up but still it's a good start. My goal: Fill a whole, new shelf.
4.) Watch more movies with good friends.
If this vacation has taught me -or rather reminded- me of anything, it's the people I barely get to see now that I live in Illinois, and how much I loved watching movies with them! In the words of Veruca Salt: "I want more!"
Names to watch for 2010:
Columbus Short: I'm still putting my money on this one. His proven he could be leading man material- I wanna see him back it up with some meatier roles... Preferably ones in better movies than the completely unnecessary remake of 2007's Death at a Funeral.
Amanda Seyfried: I know a lot of people would disagree but I think this girl is going places. She's shown some range in the last couple years, I say we give her room to gallop and see what she does. She's certainly gonna be out there in 2010, let's hope their not all Nicholas Sparks adaptations.
Sam Worthington: 2009 was truly a break-out year for Worthington. He didn't do much in the middle but he emerged from domestic obscurity by beginning and ending the year with near-perfect performances in two huge titles... though one was admittedly "huger" than the other.
Zoe Saldana: Might as well put these two back to back. Not only did they have rather similar years, but that "huger" movie I mentioned before? They're in it together don'tcha know. All the same, we got to see her (or at least her movments and facial features) branch out a bit this year. I expect good things. Besides, even if I didn't she'd still be worth watching... literally... cause she's really good looking...
Diablo Cody: Once can be a fluke. Twice can be a coincidence. But three is a pattern. Here's hoping for a pattern.
The Wolfman: Anyone who knows me knows I'm partial to the furriest of all the "monsters", but that aside, this movie is looking better and better. Co-written by Andrew Walker (the same man who brought us Se7en among others) and chalk full of names that are actually worth mentioning, The Wolfman is at least worth considering even if your not excited like I am. But wait, there's more...
If The Wolfman turns out to be a win, it could be a tally in more than just the "classic movie re-makes" column. You see, director Joe Johnston's got another big name on his plate following Wolfman. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's a little art house film called First Avenger: Captain America. He's put his mark on the world of visual effects with other lesser known projects like... oh, I don't know... the original Star Wars trilogy, and as a Director he has a respectable -if not a bit fluffy- track record, but Wolfman would signify not only the biggest name on his record, but also the darkest.
Put simply, a great Wolfman would not only please me greatly, but also help ease my nerves when it comes time for Cap's modern debut.
So there you have it. A brief look through my eyes into the coming year. Stay tuned for my (holiday delayed) review of Sherlock Holmes. I hope the holidays found you well gentle reader; Happy New Year! And remember, crack is whack.