Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Remember That Movie: First Blood

Hello and welcome to the first edition of Remember That Movie, wherein I write about an older movie. I am hoping Remember That Movie will be at least a monthly feature on my blog, but (as is the case with all new things) time will tell.

This month, 1982’s First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone as the iconic John Rambo. First Blood is based on the novel by David Morrell and is about a Vietnam vet wandering through a small town in the Pacific Northwest. After discovering the last of his unit died of cancer, he gets picked up by a stubborn sheriff played by Brian Dennehy who doesn’t like wandering outsiders. Rambo gets arrested for vagrancy and quickly pushed around at the police station by Dennehy and his hapless subordinates (look for a very young David Caruso!). We’re not talking about the occasional tough-talk; Rambo is stripped naked, showered by hose and nearly shaven by force. Suffering such unnecessary trauma recalls his experiences being tortured in Vietnam, which makes Rambo snap. And that’s when the movie takes off.

Rambo runs off to the woods, pursued relentlessly by Dennehy and his hounds (both canine and deputy alike). And that’s when things go sour for the small-town cops and everybody learns what Rambo is really capable of.

Interestingly, Rambo the film franchise is known for its high body count and idiotic action. Not one bit of that reputation is present in First Blood. Rambo doesn’t kill a single person (intentionally) in First Blood. While there’s plenty of action and explosions, the film seems mostly concerned with making a statement about the Vietnam vet’s experience – so much so that just when the movie seems to derail from that focus, it brings it all back home with a great monologue at the end (a change from the source’s abrupt end to the character). Rambo starts the film as a pleasant guy minding his own business. Once he’s harassed, you can see in his face that it isn’t the first time. His stand-off in the woods is a logical act from a man fed up with being mistreated by the civilians of the country he supposedly fought so hard to protect. His onslaught of the small town (conveniently named Hope) near the film’s end, under the surface, is an attack on a society that hypocritically champions its values – values that Rambo supposedly signed up to represent and protect in the war.

All this is very intriguing, but First Blood isn’t without its silly moments. The movie can at times be a bit on the nose with its dialogue (“We ain’t hunting him, he’s hunting us!”). It does come close to the gratuitous explosions the franchise is known for when not only is the National Guard called in to aid in Rambo’s capture, but they bring a rocket launcher to take down this one man. Also, logic trips a bit when Rambo claims, “They drew first blood, not me,” referring to the civilian officers chasing him, when in fact Rambo is the one that kicked everyone’s asses first during his escape from jail! And that song during the credits by Dan Hill, who sounds like Michael McDonald from the Doobie Brothers, is just a weird, sappy way to end the movie.

That being said, First Blood is a surprisingly fun and interesting film about the attitudes Vietnam vets returned home to and one man who was pushed too far. Attitudes may be different about today’s veterans, making First Blood about a specific time, but that in no way sours the film. If anything trips this movie up, it’s itself.


First Blood is available on Blu-Ray and Special Edition DVD.

Moon: A Stone's Throw Away from Classic

Duncan Jones, previously best known as David Bowie’s son, makes his directorial debut with the brainy sci-fi film, Moon. In Moon, Sam Rockwell (The Green Mile, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) stars alone as a blue-collar employee of a huge energy corporation. His job: to stay on the moon for three years, mining for Earth’s primary clean energy source found on the dark side of the moon. The hitch? He’s alone with the exception of one talking robot and the occasional recorded transmission from his wife and toddler.

We meet Sam (played by Sam) as he’s approaching the end of his three-year stint of isolation on the gray rock; he has two weeks to go. Unfortunately, Sam starts getting headaches and having visions until a near-fatal accident occurs in a lunar rover. He awakes in the infirmary with injuries that delay his ability to complete his contract and return to Earth. Once he’s back at work, something happens that leads Sam to discover another person that looks just like him.

I won’t give any more details of the story away. However, everything I just explained occurs during the first twenty minutes of the movie, the rest of which isn’t so much about what Sam initially discovers as much as how it affects him and what else Sam doesn’t know. There are little clues throughout the film that hint at circumstances and events that occur to Sam during the rest of the movie. An observant viewer will catch them and figure out what’s going on, but that won’t spoil the experience of the film. Moon is one of those rare sci-fi films that is less about the reveals and special effects than the ideas and characters. If all this sounds like a snails-paced snore-fest worry not: it is a fascinating and captivating trip thanks to its ideas and performances. You will not be bored.

Speaking of its performances, there are few. In fact, with the exception of Kevin Spacey’s voice work as the facility’s robotic keeper and Sam’s only companion, Gerdy, Sam Rockwell is the only performance(s) we are really given. His is crucial to the success of this film since the story relies on him to avoid becoming campy or silly. Rockwell knocks it out of the park, giving a solid performance that sells the movie. There isn’t a single false note, adding credibility to the story and deserving much more accolades than he’s been given.

As this is a sci-fi space film, the special effects are worth mentioning. They look great for a budget of five million dollars. The vehicles and ships look just as good – if not better – than anything in Terminator Salvation or Wolverine, demonstrating how much can be done with very little. While the story may take place on the moon, the effects take such a backseat to the story that it renders the location irrelevant; this could take place in any desolate location. And most sci-fi pictures unfortunately forget that is what makes a great sci-fi story: story and characters first, sci-fi effects last.

Moon also handles its themes rather well – something else that many movies of any genre fail at. It questions in an understated, non-bludgeoning way what makes us who we are. Are our personalities no more than the sum of our memories? The film also seems to say that even the most benevolent of corporations have an unsavory side, which isn’t necessarily new territory.

But that brings us to an important point about Moon as a whole: it isn’t flawlessly outstanding, but it is really good. The concepts in Moon aren’t mind-blowingly original and the film is imperfect in its science and music queues. What could’ve been a perfectly solid instant-classic by a veteran is instead a strong debut that is intelligent and stands apart from the usual Rock ‘em Sock ‘em mediocrity.

Duncan Jones, working with a limited budget, has brought us a film that may be slightly flawed, but is definitely among the best sci-fi the last decade had to offer. Thanks to a steady pace, smart writing, and solid performances by Sam Rockwell, Moon enters the pantheon of thought-provoking science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Gattaca.


Should you see it? Rent

Moon is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An ensemble cast and sharp writing are In the Loop

In the Loop is yet another gold-star film from 2009 that went under virtually everybody’s radar in the U.S. A political satire based on a BBC series called The Thick of It, the film is about how one man’s public blunder sets a domino-effect of incidents that lead the United States and England coming dangerously close to war with some unnamed country. If Aaron Sorkin was British and The West Wing was a comedy, In the Loop would be the result.

Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, the Minister for International Development, who is asked during an interview about the possibility of war. His claim that war is “not unforeseeable” kicks off a hurricane of What-does-it-mean and Where-do-we-stand’s amongst those who make the serious decisions in British and American governments. Tom Hollander, a sort of British Peter MacNicol, blunders his way through one public statement after another, making matters worse each time. Very early on he says, “I didn’t get to be where I am by not ever speaking publicly.” And we wonder how.

While In the Loop is an ensemble piece, Foster is essentially the lead character. The film’s plot basically moves with him from continent to continent while also following nearly a dozen other characters. Chief among them are Peter Capaldi as the vitriolic Malcolm Tucker (the Prime Minister’s bulldog and the major contributor to the film’s adult language); Mimi Kennedy (Dharma & Greg) as the Stateside anti-war official Karen Clarke; Chris Addison as Foster’s inexperienced new aide, Toby; David Rasche (from Sledge Hammer! fame) as the slimy U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Linton Barwick, who organizes a secret committee to organize a war effort; Anna Chlumsky (of My Girl fame) as Karen’s aide, Liza; and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as U.S. Lt. Gen. George Miller, who also opposes Linton’s exclusive war committee.

From all these players, Capaldi stands out for his performance as Malcom, who swears enough to make a sailor swim home to mommy. His bile-filled monologues to Foster and the screw-ups around him are Olympic-level performances. And when he clashes with Gandolfini’s Miller - bulldog against bulldog, one a pugilist of words; the other a soldier of blunt force – it is something to behold. Also, Anna Chlumsky provides a delightfully surprising performance as the harried Liza. When Liza isn’t at her boss’s every beck-and-call, she’s stressing over a war essay she authored that suddenly gains a huge readership among her superiors or crossing verbal swords with an ass-kissing co-worker. Chlumsky is hilarious here and enjoyable every moment she’s on the screen. It is a real treat to see her back.

The last notable political satires were Team America: World Police in 2004 and American Dreamz in 2006. While both have their merits, neither film has the behind-closed-doors treatment of government that feels as believable as In the Loop. Nor are they as dead-pan about their humor. In the Loop is a dizzying political comedy for smart people. If you’re a fan of movies like Dr. Strangelove or dramas like The West Wing then this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. It is easily among the best comedies of the last year. Do not miss it.


Should you see it? Rent

In the Loop is on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Hurt Locker: A Solid Best Picture Contender

Here's a movie that most people haven't heard enough about - but should've. The Hurt Locker stars the relatively unknown (until now) Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, with a few cameos by well-known actors sprinkled throughout. The story revolves around a three-man team of bomb disabling soldiers in Iraq. One of them is the new leader, filling the shoes of a blown-away predecessor, who is much more reckless and dangerous than his team would like. The film follows these three as they go from call to call, disabling bombs while watching out for any on-looking bystander who may be waiting to detonate the explosives at any moment.

This film is commonly described as an Iraq War film. It is not any more an Iraq war movie as Waitress is about pie or The Matrix is about New York City. This film could basically take place during any war; the location is not what's important. It is about the dangers that soldiers face each day while doing their jobs during a war. And it takes no stand for or against the war these soldiers are involved in.

Since this movie is about the dangers these soldiers face it is thereby about the characters we're following, puncuated occasionally with an occasional explosion or gunfight. But interestingly enough, while movies have made us relish big explosions, The Hurt Locker makes us fear the big explosion, realizing if it happens then something very bad also happens. And director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break) knows the audience has seen hundreds of explosions before, so she presents them in a different way (either in slow-motion or CNN realism). This works greatly and adds a sort of garnish to what is a delectably new kind of intensity.

What this film also presents us in a fresh way is the gung-ho, reckless hotshot character, in this case played by the insta-star Jeremy Renner. Renner's Sergeant James is no Lt. Riggs in army gear. His darkness is hidden under a calm exterior. He doesn't say things that necessarily give off red flags or scream "I'm the crazy one!", rather it's his actions that make people uneasy. Of course, by the time anybody feels something isn't right, it's too late to stop him. Yet, at the same time, he is shown to be encouraging and dedicated to his fellow men. Renner blows away his award-season competition with a performance that is both humane and rash; wild, but in a much more understated way than we're accustomed.

This brings to mind what probably sets The Hurt Locker apart from most war or action movies: it fails to treat its audience like idiots. It doesn't spell everything out for you with dialogue, but it also is very easy to follow. It treats its audience with respect, knowing that they can follow the movie's implications and what is at stake in every scene. Sad as it is, we rarely are given a film with this much respect to the audience's intelligence.

While its title may not be the most straightforward or easy to remember, The Hurt Locker is in every other way a solid film. It is by far one of the best bets for Best Picture, as is Jeremy Renner for Best Actor. It is not to be avoided for its locale, because it will be one of the tautest thrillers you will see from 2009, if not the previous ten years. And an excellent character study. Do not wait to see it.


Should you see it? Rent (immediately)

The Hurt Locker is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Up in the Air is 1st Class, But Doesn't Soar

What would you do if you have 10 million frequent flyer miles? Would you save them? Would you use them for business travel? Or would you use them to go anywhere in the world for as long as you want? Those are questions, albeit the least important ones, that the movie Up in the Air asks. This is the new movie starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, and Twilight's Anna Kendrick.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man whose job it is to fire people all around the country - and collects air miles in the process. His job is threatened when Anna Kendrick's Natalie, a straight-out-of-college newbie, suggests the company could cut costs significantly by firing people remotely, laptop to laptop, instead of flying people around for face-to-face confrontations. Ryan balks and ends up having Natalie tagging along with him as he shows her there's more to the job of firing than saying "So long!". That's the basic premise of Up in the Air, which it should be mentioned is directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking and Juno). But, as is the case for Reitman's previous films, it's much more about the characters and how the basic premise affects them.

And what great characters we're given! We see Ryan Bingham's life is about efficiency. He has the leanest luggage, he knows the tricks to finding faster lines, and he has the most hassle-free life - so much so that he has no one in his life to slow him down (family has become peripheral to Bingham's perspective). Which brings to mind his philosophy of the empty backpack, which revolves around disposing all the stuff and people that make it difficult to move in life. As his foil, Anna Kendrick walks in as Natalie, a woman who is also about efficiency but also feels life isn't complete without the human relationships. This carries some irony since her business plan's efficiency distances the firing process from the people being most affected by the process. Oh, and it just so happens to threaten Bingham's job and way of life. This is a particularly juicy part of the story. Natalie's perspective on love is as practical as a job resume; as she runs down the qualities of her ideal mate she strangely similar to a hiring recruitment. Interestingly, both Ryan and Natalie think they know everything, but learn otherwise from each other; Natalie with the business world and Ryan with relationships.

Adding another layer - and complication to Bingham's philosophy - is Vera Farmiga, who is incredibly sexy and confident as Bingham's female counterpart. She may also threaten the life he's made for himself on a more personal level. Farmiga's character, like Zooey Deschanel's Summer Finn, presents a sexual casualness that hasn't before been represented in film as a legitimate characteristic without being judged or punished by the story or audience. When she says, "Think of me as you... with a vagina," she is making a statement to the audience about her playing the part we've seen men play for decades in the movies. She's not judged as a slut or villainness, just a sexually confident woman who comfortably makes her choices without need of commitment. As a result, she is one of the most appealing characters of the year. Of course, all the leads in Up in the Air are and the performances are definitely among the best of the year.

Up in the Air is a funny, well-acted movie with a well-told story. But it's not an outstanding movie. I couldn't help wondering why the movie left me feeling less than emotionally satisfied. The answer is Jason Reitman had no interest in taking a stance on any of the issues it brings up and telling the audience what to think. Up in the Air has an objectivity that leads a lot open to interpretation. That may be what makes it a great movie. However, it's up to the audience whether or not the film suffers for that.

That being said, Up in the Air is an enjoyably unique film with charismatic and interesting characters. I highly recommend it. As for what it says about today's job market, the use of technology in our lives, and what - if anything - is isolating us from each other... my opinion is, well, up in the air.


Should you see it? Rent

Up in the Air is in theaters now. On DVD and Blu-Ray in April.