Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Affleck is Officially Back with The Town

Ben Affleck’s career has certainly had its highs and lows. He started out in small parts in such movies as Dazed & Confused and Mallrats. Then 1997 hit, during which his starring vehicle Chasing Amy and his Good Will Hunting (which he won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay) were released. Affleck’s career took off.

A series of hits followed, including Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon, and Dogma before several misses steadily slid his career downward, bottoming out with 2003’s Gigli and 2004’s Surviving Christmas (with a 6 and 7% positive score, respectively, at Rotten Tomatoes they are by far the worst-reviewed films of Affleck’s career). During this time, many of his movies were broad and high-concept and more about whose face was next to his on the poster than the storytelling. Also, Affleck starred in no less than three movies a year from 1997 to 2004, apparently preferring quantity over quality more often than not.

Starting in 2006 with roles in Hollywoodland and 2009’s State of Play, as well as a directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck slowly climbed his way back up to respectability. His second directorial feature, The Town, shows Affleck has completely broken away from films that tied him down while also solidifying a transformation that he’s been building to in recent years: that of a credible talent, someone who is more interested in substance than star power.

In The Town, Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a former local hockey hero who blew a couple chances at moving on from the seedy little Boston neighborhood known as Charlestown to the national level. Tail between legs, MacRay went into the family robbery business. Charlestown has its hooks in MacRay and he decides during the course of the story to attempt to break free and wipe the slate clean. MacRay shares with Affleck the life of a fallen star that has to fight his way out of the gutter.

Doug is the brain behind his gang’s jobs and the film starts out with an extremely efficient and thorough hit of a bank (they sometimes target armored cars) that results in the brief, just-in-case getaway capture of assistant manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Keesey is released and it isn’t long before the gang discovers that their getaway girl lives in the neighborhood (she was blindfolded during the escape, but they want to be certain she wouldn’t recognize them on the street). Affleck steps up to ‘meet cute’ with her and find out if the boys have anything to worry about. Romance ensues.

Meanwhile, the FBI is on the case, headed by TV superstar Jon Hamm (Mad Men), and are keeping close tabs on witness Keesey. MacRay must worry about his feelings for Claire and the possibility of his secret jeopardizing their relationship, his hot-headed adopted brother Jem (played with perfect intensity by Jeremy Renner) going too far and bringing unwanted attention to the gang, the FBI somehow obtaining concrete evidence to put them all away, and his clingy ex-girlfriend (Blake Lively) jeopardizing his new relationship or his work. Talk about a full plate!

The Town is written and directed in such a way that it isn’t weighed down by this juggling act. Affleck can only take partial credit for the writing since it’s based on a novel, but his direction is assured. He recently spoke in an interview about how, while helming this picture, he cobbled together his experiences from some directors he’s worked with. It shows. For example, it’s clear he learned much from car chase extraordinaire John Frankenheimer (Ronin) while working on Reindeer Games. A good chase sequence is one where the audience is no further ahead than the main characters, every sharp turn or sudden obstacle is a surprise. The Town features one of those good ones.

Let’s not fail to mention Affleck’s cast. This is not a film intended to break the theater marquee with a mile-long A-list troupe. Make no mistake: this is a fine cast that is picked more for their substance than name recognition and includes Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, and Blake Lively. The latter two are the only ones with any recognition of late, so let’s talk about them briefly first.

Jon Hamm is the Eliot Ness of the story, the agent who is determined to get these guys. I’ll often use the word ‘fine’ to describe this movie to others. In general, I intend it in the best possible meaning of the word. With Hamm, I use ‘fine’ to describe him in the middle-of-the-road sense. He serves his purpose, but he’s no Costner in The Untouchables or even Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

Blake Lively, however, gets maybe a quarter as much screen time and is much more impressive in her makeover. To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with the actress or her TV series Gossip Girl. It wasn’t until after watching The Town that I learned she’s a young twenty-something known for her fashion model looks. As Krista Coughlin, MacRay’s drug-addicted ex-girlfriend and Jem’s little sister, Lively plays pathetic and tacky, wearing gold rings and necklaces, looking like thirty-something white trash who’s always high, wearing too much make-up, and only pretends she’s harder to get than she really is. This is a small, yet highly impressive performance.

Jeremy Renner, the break-out star of last year’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker plays a good foil for MacRay in that Jem is a man who has embraced those chains keeping him rooted in Charlestown crime. He grabs on with both hands and warmly embraces them, ready for the opportunity to take things a step too far. Jem fully accepts the prospect of a dead-end standoff in his future, not only embracing his place in society but also as though he somewhat romanticizes his life as that of an Old West outlaw.

Rebecca Hall, best known for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is an intriguing choice simply because she could’ve very easily lost out to the likes of Charlize Theron or Natalie Portman as the love interest, fine actresses who are much bigger box office draws. The fact that Affleck went with Hall, a woman known best for her acting than as a face that sells, is very telling of the direction he wanted to go with this film. Hall is a great choice, a perfect balance between a silver screen beauty and an Everywoman. She brings weight and authenticity to the role of a traumatized banker who somehow allows herself to open up to a man she knows less about than she thinks.

The rest of the cast offers brief appearances by Cooper and Postlethwaite whose appearances make their characters all the more memorable. Affleck himself, arguably the film’s lone star with his salt-and-pepper jarhead, plays the lead and more than carries his weight here, thereby reminding us that he is in fact a talented actor.

But it’s in his direction that The Town really shines. Affleck knows what the audience expects at times and succeeds at heading them off. He also knows how to successfully create tension. There is a simple scene of dialogue between three characters where one character knows a single piece of information the other two don’t. The way that scene is played out may make it the film’s most intense scene and is definitely among the most intense moments I’ve seen all year.

Is The Town a great movie? No. But it wraps the crime genre around itself like a warm blanket. It’s enjoyable enough that you won’t mind underneath all the excellent performances and direction is a familiar crime film that’s just above average. As such, it’s a very fine Town Affleck has here.


Should you see it? Rent

The Town is now in theaters.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Film Faves: 2001

Welcome to yet another edition of Film Faves.  Every edition features a complete and undeniably biased countdown of my favorites in film.  Instead of a run-of-the-mill top ten list, the inevitable honorable mentions are avoided and instead a list of twelve of my favorites of any given topic is counted down. Take this as not a serious "best-of" list as much as an insight into what it is I really love when I'm not tripping over myself to be objectively critical.

This month, I'm continuing my travels back in time with the year 2001.  While 2007 is the aughts' worst year in film, 2001 comes pretty close in my estimation.  So loaded with mediocrity (more on that soon) it is that I had a tough time coming up with a complete list of twelve favorites.  But I managed.

Let's start with a quick run-down of the year's achievements.  The top grossers included Ocean's Eleven, Pearl Harbor, The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, Planet of the Apes, and Hannibal.  There are roughly 241.5 million ticket-buyers that are probably kicking themselves about now.

A Beautiful Mind was the big catch during awards season while No Man's Land and Monsoon Wedding were the foreign films to see in the art houses.

As always, there were a few bad films, including American Pie 2, Black Knight, Corky Romano, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, Freddy Got Fingered, Glitter, Joe Dirt, The Musketeer, Rush Hour 2, Swordfish, Tomcats, Vanilla Sky, and What's the Worst That Could Happen?.

However, 2001 was mostly full of underwhelming mediocrity.  Many challenging and unconventional films found their release dates pushed back after 9/11.  What followed was a long series of mediocre releases, including Hardball and Max Keeble's Big Move.  It wasn't until October that more serious and challenging films like Training Day and From Hell crept into theaters, which gave way to oddball films like The Royal Tenenbaums and several crowdpleasers listed below.

Here's a dose of 2001's load of meh, released throughout the year: Artificial Intelligence: A.I., Ali, American Sweethearts, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Center of the World, Evolution, Frailty, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, A Knight's Tale, K-PAX, Life as a House, The Mexican, Riding in Cars with Boys, Rock Star, The Score, Someone Like You, and Waking Life.

That said, here are my favorites:


12. Josie & the Pussycats

This fun, self-referential, satire on the commercialism of pop music gets a lot of hate. Yes, Tara Reid does nothing here to counter her reputation as an annoying actress. Roger Ebert even included it in his book Your Movie Sucks. What most seem to criticize the movie for, however, is not its light-as-air tone, but its product placement. They all completely miss the point. Universal wanted to bring the Archie comics characters to the screen for years and there may not have been a better way to do it. This girly, BFF trifle is just plain fun, but with a satirical edge that is uncommon (are movies like Bratz this self-aware?). Just try not to laugh during the five minute DuJour opening sequence.

11. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

How did Harry turn out so well in such a horrendous home environment? You may not get an answer to that question, but all else may be in the film that kick-started the best family-friendly franchise of a decade. Sorcerer’s Stone is one of the worst-reviewed of the series (a rather respectable 78% on RT). While it is easy to notice some blemishes, I still can’t bring myself to dismiss a film that has more class, wit, and intelligence than most movies that target youth and their parents’ wallets. One last thing that really struck me upon revisiting this film recently is just how remarkable it is that the cast has stayed solid the entire way through! With the exception of the crucial Dumbledore, all the principals have remained throughout the series; that alone is impressive and rare to see in a seven-part film franchise. But all of the less-significant peripheral and supporting characters have even been played by the same actors the entire way through. That’s just one of many amazing things to appreciate about this franchise.

10. The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain (a.k.a. Amelie)

You may remember this film, because it was quite a sensation when it hit our shores. I nearly forgot about it myself. This is a hilarious and sweet film in part about random events either colliding or leading to other events; the notion that the answers to life’s questions are simpler than what our imaginations often make them out to be; and those secret pleasures in life we all have, which typically involve the littlest of things. All of these revolve around the principle plot, which follows Amelie (Audrey Toutou) as she goes on a quest to make others happy. This film, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection), is full of interesting characters and close-ups that break the fourth wall. It also features some fantastic visuals, such as quick pans and zoom-ins, striking colors, and inanimate figures and pictures coming to life. Simply put, Amelie is a beautiful feel-good film.

9. In the Bedroom

On the opposite side of the spectrum is a film that may not make you feel so good, but is nonetheless powerful and may touch you. In the Bedroom is Todd Field’s incredible directorial debut. Nick Stahl stars as a young man with a promising future in architecture who falls in love with an older woman played by Marisa Tomei. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play the young man’s proud, yet wary parents who must cope with a sudden tragedy. This film brought attention back to Tomei, who was little-seen in the late nineties, and reminded audiences of her considerable acting talent. Performances by Wilkinson and Spacek were also very strong, bringing many well-deserved award nominations and accolades to both. It may slide into a somewhat disappointing third act, but In the Bedroom is a fantastic performance piece and one of the best films of 2001.

8. Winged Migration

I get the impression this film hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Anybody who enjoyed Planet Earth or Disney’s Earth will love this film (and anybody who resisted those films can go find another planet to under-appreciate). Winged Migration takes what is literally a bird’s-eye view of the winged species throughout the planet. At times, the photography is stunning enough that you’ll think it must be CGI. But not a single so-close-you-can-touch-them frame is faked. The flying sequences are spectacular.

7. Monsters Inc.

DreamWorks may have had the best-remembered animated film of the year, but Pixar had the highest-grossing and best. Its story is one of friendship, xenophobia, and alternative energy resources. Only Pixar could pull such a story off without being political, heavy-handed, or preachy. Featuring a wonderful cast - including Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and James Coburn – that served the characters more than marquees, Monster’s Inc. is another notch of greatness on Pixar’s belt.

6. Ghost World

This film tickles me to no end. Upon thinking about the opening with the kitschy dance footage, the fake ‘50s diner with Weird Al, and the white-trash convenience store customer I begin pining for another opportunity to see the film. Based on an indie comic by Daniel Clowes, starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as the main characters, with Steve Buscemi, Ghost World is a fantastic and engaging comedy about how what makes us individuals can both alienate and draw us closer to those around us.

5. Shrek

Was there anything like it before? While the series and its concept may have been run into the ground through a handful of sequels and copycats, the 2001 original still packs quite a comedic punch. Most importantly, it has a heart and story and the jokes and references serve to either build the land of Far Far Away or further the story. John Lithgow originally passed and then took the part reluctantly, uncertain of the writers’ comedic talents, only to be humbled when he watched the film. Myers and Murphy may rely on the series for a paycheck now, but the first Shrek was anything but a cash-grab; it was a much-needed creative jab at Disney’s fairy tale tradition, which had gone stale in previous years.

4. The Others

Here’s a little gem in Nicole Kidman’s career, one of two hits she’d have the same year. She stars as an over-protective mother to her photosensitive children who hires three mysterious caretakers in 1940s Jersey. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar (Abre los ojos), The Others kick-started the PG-13 horror craze and is still the best of them all, playing with perception and mood rather than cheap jump-scares and kills. It may also be the best haunted house movie ever made.

3. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

If you’ve been following Film Faves, you probably thought this was going to be my number one. Fooled you! While it may not be my favorite in a year chock-full of mediocrity and tragedy, this opening chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga is nothing to turn away from. The one that started it all about the one ring to rule them all is abundant in magnificent imagery such as the statues of the Great River and the scene featuring the bridge of Khazad-Dûm (you know, the “You shall not pass!” scene). When we witnessed Samwise Gamgee risk drowning in order to stick by Frodo, we all knew we’d found a friend we could rely on. Fellowship of the Ring is a classic.

2. Moulin Rouge!

The film that revived the musical is also hands-down the best of the decade. There were many musicals that followed, but few accomplished anything as unique as Moulin Rouge’s style, energy, or creativity. Many Kidman detractors point to this film for evidence, but I find Kidman to be at her most diverse and stunning as Satine, the aspiring actress in a gilded cage. There is no film in 2001 that put me at the edge of my seat more than Moulin Rouge!. It only took the medley near the beginning of the film - with all its manic energy, intoxicating camera work, and infectious music – for me to realize I was witnessing something special. Among my favorite numbers: ‘Roxanne’, ‘The Show Must Go On’, and ‘Come What May’.

1. Donnie Darko

This is yet another film over which I’ve already sung praises (it was among my top five films of the decade). Donnie Darko was a film that remarkably rebounded by word-of-mouth after a dismal one-theater release, just days after 9/11. Most importantly, it was a film with the kind of artistic substance that warranted such attention. After surviving a passenger plane engine falling through his room, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is visited by a demented-looking bunny who orders him to execute seemingly destructive tasks for reasons only to be revealed in time (fans with catch the pun). Swayze fans will find one of his most unconventional performances here. Also, check out the director’s cut, which splices in more exposition, thus making for a completely different and equally satisfying experience.

So, that's the year 2001 in film.  What are your favorite films from that year?  Did I overlook one that deserves mention?  Let me know in the comments section below, Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter.  I love hearing your feedback.  Also, vote in the poll to the right on your favorite movie from 2001.

Next time on Film Faves, we finish a decade with a battle royale between bad motha's, unbreakable men, '70s rock bands, mutants, and Oscar-winning females. Crank out your top fives (um, you may need to write them on your arm with a Sharpie so you don't forget), it's the year 2000!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Kids... Is Better Than Alright

The Kids Are All Right stars Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo. That’s important because their performances are the main reason to see Lisa Cholodenko’s latest film, a dramedy about the DNA of a family unit and the chemistry necessary in order to keep a marriage alive.

Cholodenko is a director whose work, including High Art and Laurel Canyon, is most comfortably suited to the art-house crowd. I don’t mean to disrespect Cholodenko or her right to tell stories that speaks to her experience and that of an entire community; she is a powerful filmmaker. However, High Art was out-and-proud about its edginess and wore its social politics plainly on its stained sheets (i.e. it was overt and heavy-handed). But with her latest film, Cholodenko has finally managed to take characters with alternative lifestyles and make something more mainstream, if conventional in its telling, and deliver her lesbian themes with nuance and restraint. The Kids Are All Right kills with kindness those who still desperately hang on to conventional ideas of the nuclear family.

Mia Wasikowska (last winter’s dull Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson (the more effective Bridge to Terabithia) play Joni and Laser, daughter and son of a lesbian marriage through sperm donor. Joni recently turned eighteen and is one summer vacation away from moving on to college. Laser takes this opportunity to ask his sister to secretly contact their mysterious sperm donor (whether this is due to simple curiosity or the need of a male figure is open to debate).

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play their parents with spectacular chemistry, as if they’ve actually been married for nearly twenty years; Nic (Bening) is the uptight, controlling, nag of the couple (what parental unit is complete without?), while Jules (Moore) plays her empathetic, lax counterpart (it’s telling that one is a medical professional while the other has only vague ideas of career ambitions).

Mark Ruffalo is the donor in question, Paul – and boy does he get questioned! Ruffalo is the likeable, earthy, round peg that never fit into any square pigeonholes, but managed to make a healthy living running a co-op garden and organic restaurant. He is the exact middle of Nic and Jules since he flows through life like the seasons, but is driven enough to do something financially-stable with his life. In fact, this has made for a dichotomous individual that’s both irresistible to women, yet has little interest in settling down and starting a family. You’d be hard-pressed to find a character this interesting in something like The Switch.

In the middle of The Kids Are All Right, something happens that we’ve seen in countless other films about family and marriage, which leads to a predictable discovery that we’ve also seen countless times. The conventionality of the film’s nature may be the point, as if Cholodenko means to say, “Hey, this life has the same problems as your conventional, meat-and-potatoes life.” The intent is to normalize this kind of family, which I’m tempted to respond with indifference. This would’ve been society-shattering cinema fifteen years ago, but it’s nothing new now. But I’ll restrain that cynical voice for a moment, because it’s tough to be completely indifferent toward a film with performances this first-rate and absorbing.

Mark Ruffalo once again delivers with a performance full of honesty and matter-of-fact wisdom. He’s that cool neighbor you wish you could get to know better. Once he decides to make more out of his life, you can’t help hoping the best for him. However, his outsider presence serves as the catalyst for the rest of the movie and, as is often the case with this familiar device, things may not go as well as we hope for him. Be that as it may, his performance staves off that predictability and entrances us.

Moore, with her aviator glasses, jeans, and t-shirt is rock-star cool and may never have looked so hip. Twice this year (first in Chloe), she’s explored themes of marriage, aging, and emotional neglect. To be more specific would give spoilers, but Moore plays a type opposite her earlier role and digs in even deeper. Her casting in this part feels more organic than titillating. We believe her as this character, which makes her sudden actions hard to buy at its onset, but we accept it purely because of Moore’s ability to give this character dimension. This may top The Hours as the best performance of Moore’s career. Expect award nominations for her in the months to come.

Bening plays a much more grounded (and perhaps better) version of her role in American Beauty; Nic isn’t nearly the despicable narcissist that Carolyn is. However we’re so relieved when Nic finally accepts her inability to maintain control that when reality crashes down on her we become fearful of how she might respond (we even fear she will take a dark, violent turn, as some characters in films of this kind do). Bening’s presence in this film is refreshing and is enough to realize we don’t see enough of her anymore.

The Kids Are All Right serves as a great contemporary family dramedy for a time where family conventions of the 20th century have mutated into something slightly different. It unfortunately follows some familiar tropes that prevent the story from being wholly original. And those tropes are anchored in a story that thinks it’s ground-breaking, but is in fact at least ten years too tardy to be revolutionary. That said, the subtle handling of the situation and its subtext, as well as the performances by its adult leads holds it together and elevates the material to something really engaging. As for the kids, well, they’re alright.


Should you see it? Rent

The Kids Are All Right is playing at your local art house and independent theater.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Remember That Movie: Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee is a legend of martial arts films and teaching. He was a Chinese American who taught martial arts and developed his own style, which he taught at his schools in Seattle and California’s Bay Area. He was eventually asked to audition for a TV show, which became the short-lived The Green Hornet, with Lee as sidekick Kato. This led to a run of dissatisfying supporting roles and Lee’s move to Hong Kong cinema. Lee starred in three movies – all critically and commercially successful – and was working on a fourth, Game of Death, when he was approached to star in Enter the Dragon. It was one of the first martial arts films produced by a Hollywood studio and sparked a brief American interest in kung fu in the ‘70s. Most importantly, Enter the Dragon was also released in 1973 in Hong Kong, six days after Lee’s death from cerebral edema, which was a possible response to a muscle-relaxant.  Enter the Dragon cemented Bruce Lee as an icon.

In case you don’t remember, Enter the Dragon stars Lee as a martial arts master who is invited to a tournament on a far-away island. British Intelligence requests Lee’s assistance in the capture of the event’s host, Mr. Han, a suspected drug trafficker.

John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and martial arts actor Jim Kelly also star as competitors in the tournament and provide some of the film’s lighter performances. Take for example the juxtaposed moments when both are presented with courtesans; Saxon, a man who likes to appear comfortable in both demeanor and wealth, makes the most Bond-like choice, while Kelly, after choosing no less than four women demurs, “Please understand, if I missed anyone, it’s been a big day. I’m a little tired.”

Enter the Dragon is essentially a James Bond movie – and probably the best Bond film of the seventies. Imagine if Bond relied on martial arts instead of tech gadgetry. If Bond didn’t take every opportunity to bed a woman. And if he were Chinese. Lee, when discussing the mission with a member of British Intelligence, plays the same beats of cynical bravado that we’re familiar with in these kinds of adventures; he’s calm, collected, and cool – and he scoffs at governmental bureaucracy. He sneaks around in the dark, finding secret passages to get to the bottom of things. And he single-handedly takes out dozens of guards, only here he does so with all the yelps, screams, and ruthless assaults one expects from a Bruce Lee movie.

Add to this the nefarious Mr. Han, himself a Bond villain, complete with a white, fluffy cat to stroke and various deadly prosthetic hands (from bear claw to steak knives!). His is the business of corruption through drugs and prostitution. And Han has the hired muscle to protect him in Bolo, a thickly-muscled Chinese thug, whose spine-snapping grip is an impossible match. Also, there’s Han’s other go-to-guy, O’Hara, a curly-fro’d meanie who is responsible for the death of our hero’s sister.

Taken as such, Enter the Dragon is great fun – that is, after the first half hour, the film’s weakest point, which features random flashback sequences and a bizarrely-lengthy opening sequence about martial arts philosophy. It is also here that it becomes apparent this is one of those movies where everybody knows how to successfully complete a round-house kick and every hit sounds like a firecracker.

The film is directed by first-timer Robert Clouse, who went on to make such martial arts films as Black Belt Jones (also starring Kelly) and Ironheart, none of which reached Enter the Dragon’s level of success. With his debut, Clouse had some tricks up his sleeve to keep things visually interesting. Unlike movies today where fights are either heavily stylized or shot so tightly one can’t make sense out of the action, the fight scenes in Enter the Dragon are mostly static shots from yards away that allow you to see every punch and kick completely. This is refreshing and compliments Lee’s choreography well, allowing the viewer to better appreciate the action and kills.

Also, there are two key first-person perspective shots that take their scenes in unexpected directions that must’ve been striking at the time. And the climactic hall of mirrors set-piece, while copied many times since, is disorienting and makes for an inspired final showdown with a satisfying, if predictable, conclusion.

It’s also worth noting Enter the Dragon was filmed during the final years of the Vietnam War and the middle years of the Cold War, both conflicts between democracy and communism. That the movie is about the West working with the East to fight corruption offers something of political significance and an interesting analysis of the film, especially given the film’s final moments, which I won’t spoil here. However, it isn’t something the film dwells on and exists only superficially. After all, there’s too much kung fu fun to be had to get bogged down in politics.

Each of Lee’s films is notable for the appearance of some future star and Enter the Dragon is no exception. While Way of the Dragon and Game of Death respectively featured prominent fight scenes with former pupils Chuck Norris and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Enter the Dragon features appearances by two well-known names – you just have to look closer to see them. Sammo Hung, future star of a slew of martial arts films and TV’s Martial Law can be seen during the film’s opening fight. While, if you look closely during a scene in a dungeon where Lee is being attacked by a bunch of henchmen, you’ll spot a young Jackie Chan getting his neck broken by a furious Bruce Lee.

Enter the Dragon is a fun Bond-like action film that influenced everything from TV (Kung Fu) to video games (Mortal Kombat) and helped make possible the careers of many martial arts movie stars. It has its flaws and I couldn’t help laughing as Bruce Lee completely annihilated insignificant, non-descript guards. But it also offers some interesting action and direction and comic-relief by John Saxon and Jim Kelly. If you’re curious about Bruce Lee, martial arts films, or on the look-out for a good action film then look no further.


Should you see it? Rent

Enter the Dragon is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fall Movie Preview

While some would argue it’s been dead for weeks, the summer movie season is quickly dying off. Autumn is fast approaching, which means a fresh crop of movies is ready to drop and the awards season is around the corner. Those movie fans made weary by this summer’s marathon of mediocrity and endless disappointments, given only brief reprieve by movies like Inception and Toy Story 3 are made hopeful and optimistic once again (for those determined enough to look outside their zip code there was also Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Animal Kingdom). As they should, for this fall season is promising enough that it almost looks like studios waited until the last quarter of the year to release most of their good movies.

Below is a brief rundown on some of the coming season’s approaching films in order by release date with cast lists and trailers.


Never Let Me Go – Starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan (An Education), and Andrew Garfield (upcoming Spider-Man reboot). Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo).
A moody story with sci-fi elements about the boarding school that three characters attended and its dark secrets they discover. Based on the trailer this looks promising with a handling of the sci-fi genre and dour color scheme similar to Children of Men. This may be this year’s other (less sensational) sci-fi for smart people.


The Town – Starring Ben Affleck, Blake Lively (Gossip Girl), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Pete Postlethwaite (The Lost World: Jurassic Park), Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity). Directed by Ben Affleck.
A bank teller (Hall) is abducted by a group of thieves after a hit on her bank and then released. While dealing with her trauma she is befriended by a man (Affleck) whose life is entrenched in Boston’s criminal underworld. The trailer below unfortunately contains a single shot that spoils an important element of the story. However, while I have yet to see it, Affleck previously garnered great praise for his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. The Town looks to further that reputation and solidify Affleck as a respectable director with a crime drama on par with The Departed.


Buried – Starring Ryan Reynolds, Samantha Mathis (The Thing Called Love), and Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day). Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (The Contestant).
A U.S. contractor working in Iraq is attacked by Iraqis and wakes up in a box buried under ground with only a lighter and a cell phone. This is a great example of an actor and director working together to make a great story with very little. Buried debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was immediately piled upon with praise. This is Reynolds’s chance to prove to skeptics that he has the goods as the entire movie rests on his performance.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole – Starring Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Abbie Cornish (Bright Star), Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge), Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, and Helen Mirren. Directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen). Based on the Guardians of Ga’Hoole novels, this CG-animated film has a trailer that looked stunning in 3D. It’s also a first for Snyder, whose previous work is exclusively violent, stylized live-action genre films for adults. It features a great cast of English and Australian actors and spectacular use of 3D imagery. If the story is just as impressive, we may have another great animated film before the end of the year.


Let Me In – Starring Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass), Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), Richard Jenkins (Burn After Reading), and Elias Koteas (The Fourth Kind). Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield).
In 2007, the Swedish film Let the Right One In was a world-wide success and was immediately placed on many best-of lists. When news hit that a Hollywood studio wanted to share this great story by remaking it, fans broke out their torches and pitch-forks – and with good reason as I Think I Love My Wife, Bangkok Dangerous, and Dinner for Schmucks (to sample just a handful out of dozens) have proven that most of these projects result in poor variations of what made the originals great. However, Matt Reeves has spoken with high regard for the story, claiming his will be a dark and scary film. Moretz seems to concur, explaining her take on vampirism as an alternate personality that takes over her, a devil inside. Producer Simon Oakes is even more promising, stating it isn’t a re-imagining as much as a faithful remake with the same ambiguities and unwillingness to spoon-feed the audience. Though there are reports of at least one scene that’s completely different from the original all of this faithfulness might bring one to question why is something that appears to be a carbon copy necessary to make? Oakes says it’s because the story should be experienced by everyone and not everybody will see the foreign original. Whatever the case, audiences and fans will just have to reserve judgment until the film releases in October.

The Social Network – Starring Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland), Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go), Rooney Mara (upcoming The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo remake), Rashida Jones (I Love You Man), Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park), and Justin Timberlake. Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club).
A movie about the creation of Facebook might sound a little ridiculous, but not when it’s directed by Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). In fact, Facebook itself feels the film is not the kind of advertising their looking for and refuses to promote the film. It’s no wonder, since it depicts founder Mark Zuckerberg as a double-crossing college boy who just wants to be in the right social circles and make money along the way. The idea of creating a web site all about staying connected to friends while alienating and pissing people off while doing so is much more intriguing than one would expect from a movie about a popular web site. Indeed, this controversial and timely film has been getting overwhelmingly positive buzz and is even receiving Oscar talk.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Directed by Daniel Alfredson.
The third film in the Millenium trilogy based on the famous Swedish mystery novels. Anybody who’s seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is most likely looking forward to this film (The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second in the trilogy, comes out on DVD in October). Everybody else is left in the dark, mainly due to xenophobic attitudes toward English subtitles. If this sounds familiar, it should; Let the Right One In faced the same issue and both are being remade (David Fincher will direct the Dragon Tattoo remake). But nobody should have to wait that long to discover the fate of Lisbeth Salander, really.


Monsters – Starring Scoot McNairy (Cop Out) and Whitney Able (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane). Directed by Gareth Edwards (debut).
Two people try to survive the arrival of a monstrous alien as it rampages through their region. On paper this sounds like Cloverfield all over again, minus the first-person perspective. But watch the trailer below and it’s clear Monsters is a completely different experience, one closer to last year's District 9. One question: will this just be an effects-heavy monster movie or will the two leads provide some character work amidst the chaos?


127 Hours – Starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Lizzy Caplan (Party Down), and Treat Williams (Everwood). Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).
Boyle returns with a true story about Aron Ralston, a mountain climber whose arm became trapped under a boulder and had to be amputated with a pocket knife in order to survive. The premise alone may be enough to turn off many, but with James Franco as the lead and Boyle’s ability to treat characters with great humanity and tension, no matter the situation, 127 Hours is sure to be a fine dramatic piece for the season.

Fair Game – Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, and Sam Shepherd (Brothers). Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity).
Nothing says gravitas like Sean Penn in a political drama. Watts plays real-life CIA agent Valerie Plame, whom the White House outted in order to discredit her husband, who wrote an article in the New York Times claiming the Bush administration manipulated intelligence during the search for W.M.D.s in Iraq. Liman is primarily an action movie director, so it should be interesting to see how he handles a serious drama. Don’t be surprised to see Watts and Penn mentioned during the awards season for this film.


Skyline – Starring Donald Faison (Scrubs) and Brittany Daniel (Joe Dirt). Directed by The Brothers Strause (Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem).
The trailer to this season’s other alien invasion film looks cool, but so did the one for AVP: Requiem and that didn’t go very well. Is this another AVP-like experience or the new Independence Day?  We shall see.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 – Starring newcomers to the franchise Bill Nighy (Love Actually), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), and John Hurt (Hellboy). Directed again by David Yates (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).
The beginning of the end. Voldemort has control over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts. Our three heroic teenage wizards are cast out of their beloved school. What will happen when the saga finally nears its close?  Just don't fall for the 3D marketing, as this is also one of those lousy post-conversion jobs.


Burlesque – Starring Christina Aguilera, Cher, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Alan Cumming, Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy), Peter Gallagher (American Beauty), and Julianne Hough (Dancing with the Stars). Directed by Steven Antin (debut).
This year’s musical is about a small-town girl who moves to a big city and finds success in a burlesque club. Not exactly original material, but this flashy musical with shades of Chicago is Aguilera’s debut and Cher’s first film in roughly ten years. The question is can the cast, especially Aguilera on which the film seems to rest, give us great performances along with the dazzling numbers or will this be like last year’s debacle, Nine, which lazily trotted out one performance after another?


Black Swan – Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises), and Barbara Hershey (Falling Down). Directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler).
This will probably be the most intellectual and artsy film of the season. Aronofsky seems to be going back to his more ambiguous, less mainstream style of storytelling in this thriller about the relationship between a ballet dancer and her rival, who may not exist at all. Mila Kunis is proving herself to be one of the few cast members of That ‘70s Show to transition to a successful film career, but this is one of her only dramatic roles and the first at this level of gravitas, making her performance worth seeing as much as Portman’s.


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Starring Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, and Simon Pegg. Directed by Michael Apted (The World is not Enough).
This is probably the one effects-heavy film people are least aware of. The series that was green-lit upon the coattails of The Lord of the Rings has fallen. Can it rise again this December? Disney dropped the Narnia franchise after Prince Caspian underperformed. Fox 2000 and Walden Media picked up the pieces eventually. So how does one put the spark back in the franchise adapted from the classic literary series? By hiring the director that brought you the acclaimed Up documentary series, dramatic features like Gorillas in the Mist and Nell, as well as one of the worst James Bond films in recent memory, of course! Wait – huh?  Furthermore, while a trailer for the film can be found online, the studio has ceased any embedding to other sites.


TRON: Legacy – Starring Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner (TRON), Garret Hedlund (Eragon), Olivia Wilde (Turistas), Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon), and Beau Garrett (Turistas). Directed by Joseph Kosinski (debut).
Clearly the movie event of the season, particularly for non-Potter fans and the 35+ crowd. Disney has been trying for years to get a TRON sequel for the Digital Age off the ground (at one time the project was known as TRON 2.0). Here we have, during its final weeks, the year’s biggest special effects spectacle. The marketing and trailers are certainly selling this as not-your-childhood’s-TRON with cooler effects and action and a less-cheesy story. Once concern: will the young Bridges character break the film?

And that’s the fall season, folks! Of course, that isn’t all the films we have coming upon us. There are many more that I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) focus on here such as Saw VII, Paranormal Activity 2, Tangled, and Yogi Bear. What are you looking forward to this fall? Vote on the poll to the right! Are there other films you’re interested in that deserve mention? Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Gibson Revue: Re-cap

This site’s first ever movie marathon took place Saturday afternoon and, while the group may have been small, great fun was had by all, making the event a success for those who were able to attend.  For this marathon, I chose three films that featured characters who were loners at the start of the story and gradually became a part of something by the time the screen faded to black.

The day started off with True Grit, the classic John Wayne film that’s being remade by The Coen Brothers for this December. While I had issues with the performance by lead actress Kim Darby and I felt the movie failed to live up to the story’s potential, the group seemed to enjoy the film overall for John Wayne’s performance and were pleasantly surprised to see appearances by Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall. There were even some remarks on how striking the picture quality was for it being a DVD and not a Blu-Ray.

The crown jewel of the event turned out to be the Swedish film Let the Right One In. When I first started organizing this marathon this was the movie I knew I had to include, no matter what. I’m glad I did. The audience had either never seen or heard of this film. Those that had heard of it knew nearly nothing about it. While I like to fill the audience in on some background or other non-spoilery information as I introduce a film, I felt it was important to leave the audience’s slate clean for this particular film. It turned out to be the right thing to do, as some thought it helped their experience of the film. The audience unanimously praised Let the Right On In for its photography, pacing, and intimacy – all of which made it a stand-out in its genre, while also embracing the genre’s mythology. Those who were able to make the screening to this film seemed to feel very fortunate for it.

Finally, the third film in the marathon, Zombieland, because the day should go out on a high note. Most of the audience, of course, had seen this film already, but were eager to experience its roller-coaster zombie-killing debauchery once again. While there isn’t much to be said about a film like Zombieland, it was interesting that the audience felt its theme was inconsistent and the film lacked substance as a whole. But they still thought it was a complete blast and a great way to end the day.

The discussions after each film even seemed to go rather smoothly, with great perspectives and observations provided by all.

Thank you to those who attended (and stayed). Your support and feedback is greatly appreciated. For those of you who were unable to attend, keep an eye out in coming months as this proved to be enough of a success and garnered enough interest for a future event during those cold winter days.