Oct 7, 2010

Wall Street: no, not the new one

I recently had the fortune to rent Wall Street using the highly sophisticated Amazon.com media rental apparatus. This was in preparation to see the sequel the next evening, which I never got around to doing somehow.

Wall Street opens in a Manhattan high-rise office where fast-talking Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is starting his day as a small-time stock-broker. He cold calls possible clients, he jokes with co-workers, and at the end of a long day, he meets up with his blue collar dad (Martin Sheen) at a bar in one of the Burroughs to borrow money for rent. He explains that the glamor believed to be inherent in his chosen profession has not quite visited him yet. This go-getter soon finagles a meeting with famous investment banker Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). With inside information about his father's small airline operation, he wins an opportunity to invest for Gekko. They quickly become entangled in more illegal activity until it finally becomes obvious to Bud that his relationship with Gekko is corrosive to all his other connections, including and most clearly, his once warm rapport with his father. Sprinkled throughout with awesome 80s hairdos and an apartment-decorating montage that makes Daryl Hannah's involvement almost worthwhile, here is a movie that cannot fail to entertain, for the most part.

It is a shame, since the rest of the movie was really pretty good, that I keep obsessing about the train wreck that was Daryl Hannah's portrayal of Darien Taylor, an almost useless character, made completely so by her abysmal acting. The conversation I keep having with my hubby goes a little something like this:

ME: How is it possible for someone to play a part as poorly as Daryl Hannah did in Wall Street?
HUBBY: I know! She looks like a dude, especially in the checker-pattern blazer with the hulking shoulder pads.
ME: I think they over-dubbed each and every one of her lines, and badly.
HUBBY: She must have been sleeping with Oliver Stone, but I have to wonder why a prominent director would choose to sleep with a woman who looks so much like a dude. He could get anyone back then, right?
ME: Maybe he had a thing for really fluffy, yet somehow wispy, blonde hair in the 80s.

This topic of conversation keeps coming up. Her blank stare was devoid of emotion. Her monotone drone jolted me out of the action. In Short Circuit, Johnny 5 played his part with more inflection.

Put Daryl Hannah aside and you have a decent film about greed and how it can sully personal relationships. I enjoyed the straightforward plot line. The characters were somewhat 2 dimensional at times, but there were other moments when Sheen and Douglas really hit the mark. Most of the things I can think of to criticize are cosmetic (some of them quite literally) and made the film fun to heckle aloud, so I cannot complain too much. Douglas' make-up artist should have been fired on day one of shooting for the red lipstick and blue eyeliner he/she seemed to think did not make him look like a clown. Sean Young (that fixture of 80s supporting roles) appeared in only two scenes, wearing the most ridiculous and at the same time intriguing giant silver earrings. Another eye-catching bit of retro: a small kitchen appliance which automatically shapes rice for nigiri sushi, because it really takes a lot more time to do it by hand.

I know there is more significant relevance to be found in this film's content (especially as set in this period), but I just can't get excited about focusing on Wall Street corruption. [SMALL SPOILER ALERT] I didn't even care that much about the bad guys getting theirs. That is to say, I didn't feel that sense of vindictive pleasure at Gekko's demise as I felt when the Warden in The Shawshank Redemption opened the Bible only to find the space in which Andy Dufresne had been hiding his rock hammer.

Unrelated note: according to imdb.com, Martin Sheen considers himself a liberal democrat, but opposes abortion and euthanasia rights. If true, his bio is worth reading.

Unrelated note #2: looking up Daryl Hannah's imdb page reminds me how much I cannot get over how weird plastic surgery makes people look. Daryl Hannah should not look like Hannah Montana. I just need her to have a few more wrinkles to be plausible. Whatever procedure older actors get that makes their eyes all squinty (ala Steve Martin in It's Complicated) is quite unsettling.

And since I have opinions about almost everything: I really dislike imdb.com's new format. I am opposed to drastic style changes in familiar/popular websites. I have known what to expect and how to find information quickly on imdb ever since I studied film in college, and now look at it. All the film titles are super far away from their release dates, and the layout is sloppy. Why?

Aug 20, 2010

Vacation is over, and I saw...

I didn't actually see any movies while away on vacation, except the final 15 minutes of Rocky III. Wow are there some good "Mystery Science Theater" moments there, most of them wardrobe-related. Also, Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa frolicking, (bared midriffs and really short shorts, slow-motion style) in the surf after a good training session on the beach, was a highlight.

The fun thing about this movie (the end of it at least) is this: it manages to be entertaining amid the over-the-top silliness. I'm sure that had mostly to do with the glowing company with whom I saw it. We came to the conclusion that Mr. T (Clubber Lang) is really bad to the bone, since he took about 60 direct blows to the face in round one and didn't even bother to block.

On a totally unrelated, personal note: I got to tour the only facility in the world that makes pinball machines.

Jul 28, 2010

film term of the day: Cross-cutting

Cross-cutting: An editing technique in which two seemingly unrelated scenes are inter-cut forcing the audience to associate the two

Example: The Godfather
The most famous example of cross-cutting occurs when Michael Corleone stands up at his nephew's baptism. While he is vowing to renounce Satan all the rival mafia bosses are getting offed, we presume, under Michael Corleone's orders. These two scenes are interwoven, contrasting Michael's supposed religious devotion with his ruthless killing of several men (and one mistress).

Cross-cutting can create a sense of tension, can mislead the audience into believing that events that are occurring simultaneously are related when they actually are not, and can relate seemingly disparate events.

Jul 27, 2010

Underrated: The Game vs. 12 Angry Men

When I think of The Game I usually forget that it was directed by David Fincher. If this movie is underrated, it might have something to do with its being nestled right in between the two most notable Fincher films, Se7en and Fight Club. Maybe it doesn't quite qualify as 'underrated.' Many people like this movie a great deal. However, I take issue with its mere 7.7 rating on imdb. Consider this nuttiness: 12 Angry Men (the actual most boring movie ever made) makes it into the top ten of the 250 list with its score of 8.8. 12 Angry Men was based on a play (usually a bad thing). The action takes place entirely in one room and involves twelve male (go figure) jurors discussing the probability that the defendant is guilty. Not only is there very little action, there is very little moving at all. I suppose at the time it was a good racial commentary and the acting was considered amazing, but mightn't To Kill A Mocking Bird (a respectable #54) be said to fulfill these criteria even more effectively, whilst also entertaining us? I just can't see how anyone watching 12 Angry Men by today's standards can rank this movie higher than the other 241 movies (others of which annoy me too) on the imdb top 250.

I am not trying to contend that The Game deserves the number 9 (as of this writing) slot in 12 Angry Men's place, but I do think it deserves our consideration.

Fincher does the thing he does best: convinces us to trust the narrative and then yanks us up side down by the ankles. Even though we are repeatedly betrayed, we go along and believe we are in control. To a certain extent, I see this movie as a commentary on the power the storyteller holds over the viewer/listener. Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a controlled, shrewd, business man. He is the master of his own destiny, for we learn, despite some really dark stuff in his childhood, he has made a name for himself and excelled at his profession. His routines begin to topple when, at his troubled brother's (Sean Penn) urging, he enlists in a "game" designed for bored rich people to mess with their lives and shake things up. Soon, he has no idea which parts of his life are "the game" and which are under his control. Some freaky stuff happens, he meets a nice girl, he has a shower in his office (so we know he's doing all right - that part always cracked me up), some other crap happens with his brother, and the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. Until the final moment, it is impossible for Nicholas to bring the situation back under his grasp. He is helplessly along for the ride, even though he tries to stop and get out many times, just as the viewer is at the mercy of the storyteller.

Another thing I really like: even though it is dark and suspenseful, there is a justifiable happy ending. It is tried and true way for a storyteller to leave the audience feeling satisfied after spending an hour and a half messing with their brains, and in this film it is done well. 

Good acting, good story, some tense moments with a nice payoff at the end. If nothing else, it is entertaining, and that's more than 12 Angry Men can brag.

Jul 23, 2010

film term of the day: Script Supervisor

Script Supervisor: person on a film crew who maintains continuity from shot to shot and records the progress of daily shooting

Catching continuity errors in movies is part of the fun of movie-appreciation, especially if the story loses your interest for a minute or two. If you've noticed a glass half empty in one shot and in the next it is all the way full, your eyes are sharper than those of the script supervisor who should have consulted their notes and insisted on draining that glass to the proper mark before cameras rolled. And you thought the filmmakers were making a subtle comment on the power perception plays in the forming of our optimistic or pessimistic attitudes.

Continuity errors occur when a shot taken at one time during production is edited together with a shot taken at a different time (maybe weeks or months from the time the original shot was taken) in which something on screen fails to match the original shot.

Next time you are watching a sub par film, play along by watching for some of these generic examples:
1. length of cigarette changes randomly
2. items of clothing missing or appearing
3. placement of actors or objects in background is inconsistent

Extreme Example: Troll 2 (This one is for my friends Sarah and Jayson who just had their 4th baby and who introduced me to this fine film.) There is a scene in Troll 2 where the dad and the mom are having a conversation. When the camera is on the mom, the dad's shirt is open (I think). When the camera is on the dad, his shirt is buttoned all the way. As this film was incredibly low-budget, I am guessing that they just didn't have a script supervisor, but it would be that person's fault if they had.

Note: continuity errors are a product of simple human oversight and can crop up in the classiest of films. They are, however, more likely to occur (or be noticed) in bad movies.

I'd love to hear some of your favorite examples.

Jul 22, 2010

A Late Night Facebook Chat (with minor editing to cover up my typos)

did you like inception btw?
didn't you read my reviews?
oh i didn't see them geesh
i think i am less enthusiastic than most people i have talked to, but i still liked it
i agree with ebert's sentiment. its not that it was perfect, but come on, look at the movies they're making today
everything is a remake or a sequal or another chipmunks movie
so i'm supposed to judge it against airbender and sorcerers apprentice?
i was judging it against the dark knight
i would say its better than the dark knight, imho
we won't get quality movies if we lay down and take it, which is what ebert suggests
not better than dark knight
i think it was REALLY good. i'm just saying it wasn't perfect like some people think
if total recall and matrix didn't exist then maybe
i thought it was good too, but i didn't scream and hoot at the end or gasp with surprise is all
what movie did you scream and hoot at? in the theatre?
Spolier Alert
that's a good point
i was comparing myself to the audience with whom I saw the film who all groaned when nolan cut the camera before the top fell
i felt alienated from the human race because i didn't care
i knew it was going to be an ambiguous ending (again, total recall), and I knew the top was going to come into play
i'm just saying it wasn't a big shock
End Spoiler Alert
so you're saying that you give independence day positive reviews and this a mildish review?
LOL. I guess?... When you put it that way it does sound ludicrous
maybe i can appease you
ID4 was exactly what it was supposed to be, ie fluff
I expect cheesy lines and over the top action from a goofy film
Inception was clearly meant to be more serious and more seriously taken. I think it failed to reach its potential, that's all
maybe. for you. but i think it worked for the rest of the audience.
look at this
Good Lord. That 250 list is so effed up.
Being a critic, for me, is not about choosing what I think other people will like, but about writing honestly about what I like

Jul 21, 2010

film quiz 2 - actor's challenge

Same rules as before. No checking on the internet. Tell your friends to play, don't pump them for answers. Honor System. Play Nice.

Each question is worth 1 point, except number 10, which is worth 3 points. Deadline is August 1. One winner will receive a mystery prize...

Email answers to veronicathefilmcritic@gmail.com

1. Who plays Veronica Corningstone in Anchorman?

2. Who plays Shorty in Get Shorty?

3. Which actor sweeps Mrs. Doubtfire's ex off her feet?

4. Who played Alice Ayers in Closer?

5. With which actress did Peter Gallagher have an affair in American Beauty?

6. Who plays opposite Helen Hunt in the 1985 teeny-bopper flop Girls Just Want to Have Fun?

7. Which actor annoys Steve Martin as the wedding coordinator in Father of the Bride?

8. Which actor is lobotomized in the final scene of One Flew Over he Cuckoo's Nest?

9. Which actress nearly destroys The Paper in The Paper?

10. In what way are all the "answers" to the above questions connected to one another?

Have fun!!

Jul 20, 2010

In Bruges

I know I am woefully behind the bandwagon, stumbling as I run, out of breath as I wave my arms calling, "wait, I like this movie too..." The cart rattles on, down a cobbled street in a fairy tale town, too far ahead for me to catch up. 

I don't care though. I am still going to review In Bruges. I have to. 'It's what I do.'

All Colin Farrell-appreciation aside, this was a fantastic movie. It was brilliant choice to write the character Ray (Farrell) as somewhat childish. It was a good way to contrast his character with the older, wiser hit man, Ken (Brendan Gleeson). It was a good way to highlight the conflict he felt, having killed an innocent. It was a funny and clever way to illustrate his loathing of Bruges, Belgium. He has no interest in sight seeing, whines and complains, manipulates Ken into taking him out when Ken wants to stay in and read. The beauty of old buildings and gory art are all lost on him. He scuffles his feet and makes noise on purpose in an old church. He is not awed, but bored; as bored as a ten year old boy being dragged with his family through cultured sights when all he wants to do is go to the hotel pool. Very cleverly done. Farrell pulls it off, but just barely. There were a few moments when it felt like acting; when the mood was broken by an off line or facial expression, but that is getting nit-picky. I loved the scene in the hotel when he was bargaining with Harry (Ralph Fiennes) about where they should try to shoot each other. I also loved his child-like fascination with midgets. He was innocently enthralled, and that was so perfect for his character.

There were a few "Seinfeld" shticks that didn't work for me. The Canadian man Ray hits in the restaurant finds him on his train out of Bruges and has him arrested. The tower where Ray and Ken want to shoot each other in private is closed because a tourist (a fat man Ray tried to convince the day before not to go up all the stairs) has suffered a heart attack in the tower. These are minor details, and I can see how they fit into the story, so I think I'm letting them off the hook.

At the risk of gushing, I will just say that the acting was great all around. Ralph Fiennes was cold-blooded, but also humorous. The scenes with Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) managed to be tasteful while also exploiting midget humor. It is possible, after all.

I am finding it difficult to categorize this film because the dark was somewhat removed from the humor, and it wasn't overwhelmingly a comedy. Part of its charm is that it defies classification. It was compositionally tight. It felt organized and meaningful.

A fine film; entertaining, emotional, touching and fun-ish.

Jul 19, 2010

film term of the day: Steadicam

Steadicam: a camera mount equipped with a gyro that a camera man uses to prevent shaking during hand-held shots.

Example: My Cousin Vinny
Mona Lisa Vito meets Vinny outside the prison where he has been held overnight for contempt. A steadicam follows the couple as they walk away from the prison yard.

Similar shots can be produced using cranes or dollies, but the steadicam tends to provide a more intimate feeling since it can get very close to the action. Also, a steadicam can move along with the action in more versatile ways than a crane-mounted camera can.

Jul 18, 2010

Inception: a review within a review within a review

In the spirit of fun and to pay homage to the dream within a dream theme (one of a vast number of themes in this  flick) I am offering you all your choice of review. If you would like to read a favorable review of Inception, click here. If you would like to read an objective/neutral review, click here. If you would care to hear me lambaste, eviscerate and pan the film, click here. The strange thing is, each review captures my true feelings about this tricky film. I'm not sure how that's possible, I just know I am enjoying the aftermath of its effect on me, even if I didn't completely enjoy the viewing experience. All comments here please.

Also, I heard this quote through the grapevine today via Gorvey Garfoul, and it made me LOL.

Andrew O'Hehir - Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay

Gorvey - Ha 

Things I am yelling at the screen while I watch "Shooter"

Let me briefly preface this post. Everything in quotes is taken word for word from the movie. This movie is a freaking GOLDMINE of one-liners. I had to leave some of them behind because hubby finally refused to push pause. Everything else is the way my brain works while I watch Shooter. Finally, to my best friend, my sincere apologies for any rift in our friendship this post might cause. 

worst premise ever

I don't for one minute believe that this guy would take this job (you thought you were going to be arrested, but instead we're offering you a job to help stop people like you from doing what only you can do)

I can't understand Danny Glover's gravely lisp

"He said yes, just doesn't know it yet."

Awe, he's worried about the president. He's a patriot at heart, even though his country screwed him. I know because he asked his dog if he should take the job defending the president. It's sweet, his relationship with his dog. I'm sure that won't be exploited later on.

The cocked eyebrow means, 'I'm thinking hard.'

Slow motion strut out of the garage...with american flag in background. This guy is screwed.

I don't for one minute believe this guy can be this smart but not realize he is getting set up.

I know the rest of the movie has to be about him getting the guys who set him up, because this is happening way too early in the movie for it to be about the assassination attempt

So the government wanted the arch bishop killed, but it had to look like an attempt on the president and there had to be a fall guy... clever, except I figured it out right now, as the arch bishop hit the ground

If your plan is to set up and kill an assassin, why not choose one who is less competent than this guy; and then pick someone more competent than the fat police officer to dispatch of him?

Nice. Ditch Brody-style escape.

Bob Lee Swagger... that's this guys name?

The shooter is a crazy survivalist, so he's just going to go ahead and administer first aid to his shot-up shoulder while his stolen secret service car goes through/hides in the car wash.

Does huffing whipped cream really knock you out?

Bob Lee Swagger is a conspiracy theorist, and it took him 35 minutes (movie time) or 2 days (elapsed story time) more than it took me to figure out that the archbishop was supposed to get shot and that the US government did it.

Who could have predicted the dog's death? Me.
Hubby, filling in dialog for Swagger who just found out his dog is dead: 'Now I'm really mad.'

"They're never gonna stop chasing you." She's wise beyond her southern accent...

Really. These people who just met (one of whom is recovering from very recent gunshot wounds) have time for inappropriate sex?

Why do women "in disguise" always dress like prostitutes?

Good costume change, Swagger, 'cause a black hoodie doesn't look conspicuous

"You are asking questions way outside your pay grade." -FBI gal to FBI guy

"I don't think you understand. These guys killed my dog."

Nick Memphis - who thought up these names?

"This is about to get worse."

"Welcome to Tennessee, the patron state of shootin' stuff."

"Most guys shoot to kill, he'd shoot to wound. Turn one target into four."

lots of compliant women in this movie; compliant and pretty much unnecessary

"Sometimes to catch a wolf you need to tie the bait to a tree." Next scene. "The man we thought was tied up, came untied."

"It's a trap, every time," says the guy who was easily framed in the beginning of the movie. I wish you had figured that out before so this movie wouldn't have to exist.

Hey, he just stabbed that guy; they should have called this movie "Stabber."

Moral ambiguity much? Why is it OK for the hero to shoot a whole bunch of US soldiers who have nothing to do with the conspiracy, who are just following orders (like him in the beginning)?

Hey, Swagger, what the my-hands-are-tied-by-jurisdiction investigator is saying is: 'What this case needs is a little vigilante justice, so just in case Danny Glover turns up dead in the morning, I won't press any charges. Wink Wink.'

Good thing the shooter got to the corrupt Senator and the corrupt Colonel right before they were about to pull another job on another third world village. He just saved a whole bunch of South American babies. I know 'cause he started shooting the bad guys right after they got done talking about their plans to go kill babies in the morning (while smoking big fat cigars and laughing about how above the law they are). At this point in the movie, do I really deserve to be bludgeoned over the head with the notion that these are the bad guys?

Jul 17, 2010

Of sassy camera moves and futile attempts to entertain me...

Something very strange happened to me yesterday which has managed to trump brain space that would otherwise have been fully focused on reviewing Inception. Since it sounds like many of my readers have already seen Inception or are planning to no matter what I say, I am giving myself over to writing about this weird occurrence.

A few days ago, I rented Agora because I like Rachel Weisz and well, that's pretty much why. I watched the first half yesterday afternoon and could not make myself continue. Close to the point at which I had enough the following takes place on-screen: the Christians storm the library at Alexandria (with permission from the emperor) and start destroying everything. There are scrolls flying through the air like streamers. The camera begins to tilt and doesn't stop. Soon the viewer is upside down, just as the pagans, whose former persecution of the Christians was once sanctioned by the emperor, now find themselves displaced from their center of knowledge. I can't help but chide the film in the most sarcastic voice imaginable, "Their world will never be the same." This is the sort of camera movement that has to be subtle as it relates to the story. In this case, it was way too obvious so it just seemed gimmicky, like a substitute for good film-making.

When I came home from Inception, hubby was watching the final half of Carlito's Way, a film he saw many moons ago, and one I have never seen. Here too is a movie I have no desire to watch in its entirety, but it was somehow destiny that I saw these two halves of these two movies on the same day. When Carlito gets shot, they roll him away through the subway station, the camera becomes unbound by gravity and end over end it goes. I am not kidding. It was the same shot. I will now stop to marvel at the likelihood that anyone could be inspired by Brian De Palma or Carlito's Way. It is a camera movement that has been used before and will be used again, in the same tired "my world's turned upside down" way no doubt. So the most likely explanation is that it was all a big coincidence. But, even then, it feels a little like the Universe converging, right? I almost fell asleep before the end of Carlito's Way. I would have missed it! But something made me stay with it. It might have been hubby asking me to watch the end of the movie with him. Yep. That was it. He didn't plan it though. He too was amazed by the similarity of camera movements and overall badness of the two films.

I have to say one thing in defense of Carlito's Way. Sean Penn really is a great actor. I felt like he was channeling my old boss from The Unnamed Law Offices. I wouldn't want to hurt the scumbag's feelings.

Something this poetic happens to a film fan so rarely. I feel quite blessed.

Jul 16, 2010

Out to the movies

I'm off to see Inception. Of course, review to follow, probably at about 1:00AM.

I hope it is better than the movie I tried to watch earlier today, Agora. Who likes these toga epics? Could there be a more boring time in history about which to make a movie. Also, movies about religion walk a fine line between OK and complete rubbish. There are so few I would call good. Let me know if I am forgetting some amazing film about religion. I guess they all fall short of capturing my personal experience, and that makes them almost as exasperating as Christian Rock.

We'll talk later.

The Brothers Bloom

Hubby rented The Brothers Bloom because he knows I like Adrien Brody. My initial reaction was to refuse to watch it. I had never heard of it, and the last time my husband was seized with "unknown movie" inspiration at the video store, I suffered through not one but two (OK, one and a half) movies about vacuum cleaner salesmen. Needless to say, we've tried this open-minded-about-unknown-movies thing before, with such disastrous results as actually paying US dollars to see Equilibrium in the theater; again because one of us (this time hubby) really liked Christian Bale.

I think his intent this time was to rib me, "Ha. You like Adrien Brody, and look at this piece of poo (I like to keep it G-rated) to which he willingly connected his name," but we were both pleasantly surprised to find so much entertainment in a movie that was not a box office smash (not that I am against Indie films, but sometimes you do get burned).

There were things I didn't think were necessary or that were a little too outlandish, but for the most part, the story was interesting enough to keep me involved, and Adrien Brody did not disappoint. Also, it was an added bonus when Rachel Weisz (whom I adore from my The Mummy phase) showed up as the love interest.

I thought the opening sequence which introduced the brothers as children was very funny and well-executed. The cinematography was fine, but could maybe have done a bit more with the exotic locales. The end was drawn-out, and felt forced. I'm not big on narration, so the narrated portions of the story irritated me. I like the visual to tell the story when at all possible. It's something that sticks with me from film school, so it is probably not my own, but there it is anyway.

I laughed several times. Rachel Weisz is Penelope, an epileptic "eccentric shut-in rich bitch" who collects hobbies. There is a hilarious montage in which she demonstrates her hobbies for Bloom (Adrien Brody); as well as some funny recurring jokes that occur in the background if you watch for them. She started out pretty eccentric, but that sort of petered out towards the middle. I'm not sure if the writers intended for her to become more normal the more she was around others or if they just didn't have any more ways to make it funny. The epilepsy never came back, so it was weird to have it set up as if it was a thing. All in all though, her character worked because the emotion she and Bloom felt for one another was evident and appealing.

Where I didn't feel the emotion was between the two brothers. Mark Ruffalo is not my favorite actor, mostly because he isn't very good. There were even times when I didn't buy Adrien Brody's performance opposite Ruffalo. I am trying not to make this a treatise on acting technique, so I will leave it there.

The title sort of lacked luster. I was never sure why Adrien Brody was called Bloom. Was Bloom their last name and he chose to go by it? It doesn't make any sense if that wasn't their last name, but that means we never know Bloom's real name. Is that supposed to be symbolic of his character being shrouded in lies? I get that, but it still bugs me as the title. It feels a little like an unnecessary homage to (rip-off of?) The Brothers McMullen.

I think I know why this film didn't smash up the box office. It was mostly about self-loathing but without the proper feel-good finish that most movie-goers crave. The end kind of sputtered to a close, and I never had the sense that Bloom had come to grips with himself. He was "released" in a sense, from his brother's influence, but not necessarily from the power of his own self-hatred. I really wanted the end of the movie to be like this: Penelope (Weisz) shows up in Montenegro with her "Penelope the con artiste" doodles; convinces Bloom (Brody) to embrace his talents and get over the fact that he has to lie all the time; he finally stands up to his older brother, and he and Penelope start up a rival gang of con artists. If he could just own his work and his character, he could be free from regret and live the life he wants. It should be clearer to him that Penelope's acceptance of him, just the way he is, is the only approval he needs.

Personal note: I am so sick of the noble guy in these stories "protecting" the woman they love from the darkness that is their unknown soul. Give me a break. Do you really think we can't handle your evil? We've been in it up to our ears since time began. I always have to wonder how much the guy really loves the girl if he underestimates her abilities so vastly. Bloom goes so far as to try to trick Penelope into leaving him, instead of just telling her that he wants to keep her away from the rottenness inherently attached to his way of life. Here's a novel concept, why not let her choose? Anyway, Penelope is better at card tricks than Steven (Ruffalo), so right there Bloom ought not to dismiss this girl's potential as a con artist. (That was a jab at the overuse of the card-tricks-being-a-micro-version-of-the-con theme).

I wrote the following note to myself during the viewing: "pretty hardcore self-loathing; please let this film be about accepting who you are and embracing it." Alas, it was not about that. It was about blaming someone else for your problems (according to Bloom, his brother keeps writing him into these stories) and only sort of getting over it, and only then when that person is gone. Still, there were enough zany hijinks to keep me going, even though the denouement was protracted and a bit of a let down.

Jul 14, 2010

District 9: One of the Best of 2009


District 9 oscillates between a documentary style and a traditional 3rd person omniscient story-telling format. The documentary style lends immediacy and realism to the story, while the more traditional format fills in the gaps. I'm pretty sure the first 30 minutes of this movie actually elevated my heart rate (the word that kept running through my mind was "unsettling"). It was an intense viewing experience, mostly due to the principle actor's incredible debut performance.

I am dumbfounded that Sharlto Copley had no prior acting experience before starring in District 9. I can only marvel at the quality of his acting and that of the film-making. The story was good, if not a little unoriginal. It is clearly the writer's intent to throw apartheid abuses into a metaphorical spotlight. I am reminded of the metaphor for Native American-resettlement evident in the movie Avatar, upon which I have already commented. All that aside, wow! If you're going to whine about social and racial injustice, the least you can do is entertain those of us who go to the movies to escape the misery of the real world. Nicely done. I was entertained and only mildly riddled-with-guilt.

We meet Wikus Van De Merwe just as he is being promoted. His company MNU is in charge of District 9, an alien-inhabited slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Through "documentary footage" we learn that the aliens are being evicted to a resettlement camp far outside of town, and Wicus has just been named the boss of the eviction proceedings. He is giddy, excited, downright school-boyish as he sits at his desk answering  interview questions and preparing to go out in the field. Quickly, though, we see another side of his character as he jovially "aborts" illegally spawned alien eggs, makes jokes at inappropriate times with team members who are nervous and uncertain, and fails to provide a flack jacket for another team member (though he is wearing one), saying that they aren't really necessary because everything is going to go smoothly. His demeanor is clearly at odds with the tense and sometimes violent atmosphere. At one point, a severed limb (presumably of one of the human team members) is being loaded into a garbage bag. The carnage doesn't phase him in the least. Then, he is worried about finding a place to get lunch moments after an altercation leads to one alien's violent death. His flippancy toward the aliens who are being evicted and the situation at large (when he encounters the very dangerous voodoo war lord, he smiles into the camera and chides his team to move along, don't make eye contact) served to heighten my interest and feelings of foreboding. I felt that here was a man who was going to be in over his head soon, and I was right. As things go awry, he loses his "cool" (in quotes because his appearance is the very definition of nerdy), batting the camera away in fits of rage and letting more evictions get out of hand. The polite exterior begins to crack, revealing a more uncertain character.

Aside: Here I am reminded of the maddening calm of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. What makes her so sinister? It isn't merely the cruel things she says and does. It is the way in which she says and does them. Her steady tone and civility refuse to acknowledge the truth about her environment (insane people everywhere doing all kinds of crazy stuff) or about her feelings toward her patients. The condescension with which she addresses her charges is just unsettling.

Unlike, Nurse Ratched, Wicus (as the protagonist) is given a strange and unpleasant opportunity to amend his character flaws. He must bump up against his self perception more than once before the story ends. In many ways the film is about personal and cultural identity and how the two are so intertwined. He begins as a South African and a human. At the end, he not only sympathizes more with the alien whose escape he abets, but he becomes an alien. He wants to return to his human identity, but is physically barred from doing so, until further notice. For now he must now forge an alien destiny, hoping that he will one day be restored to his humanity.

I sincerely hope there is no sequel. The end left me with a final impression that is more powerful because I can only guess at Wicus's ultimate fate. If his alien friend survives and returns in three years, he could be returned to normal. The uncertainty at the end is the perfect punctuation of realism in this fantastic film.

Jul 13, 2010

Underrated: The 'burbs

Some of you may have seen The 'burbs on my top ten list. In college, I thought I was giving my friends a major treat when I introduced them to this movie for the first time. They all fell asleep. All of them. One friend complained loudly as he stumbled off to bed that it was the most boring movie he had ever been made to sit through. I was bewildered and crushed. How could I be so wrong about this movie?

My sincere admiration for The 'burbs goes back to the days when families still went to drive-in movies. All the way back to a time when you had to clip the radio receiver onto your half-opened car window. Yes, this was before FM channel coordination.

Occasionally, on a lazy weekend in summer, my family would take in a drive-in movie. On this particular evening, we decided to go see a nice family picture, K-9. If you've seen K-9 you know it isn't appropriate for children whose mothers are my mother. We didn't know what we were getting into, and I'm guessing it's because we saw this trailer. However, it so happened that the marquis at this drive-in had reversed the order of their movies so The Burbs showed first although it was listed second. None of us knew anything about this movie. I guess we missed this trailer (bear in mind I was 9 years old, so I had no awareness of movie trailers and wasn't even allowed to watch MTV for goodness sake). We decided to stay, even when the opening sequence made it seem that the movie might be a little scary for young children (I am the oldest of three). The rest is Lloyd family lore. We laughed hysterically and much later purchased the VHS (a rare honor reserved only for beloved classics such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Tremors).

This movie is funny because 1) Corey Feldman, the airhead teenager who lives next door, makes weird faces when he is on-screen but not the principle actor in the shot. It's fun to watch for these "reaction" shots. 2) Bruce Dern is the ex-military, takes-himself-way-too-seriously, kinda nutty neighbor who is dying for a reason to use his military gear. 3) The wife is Carrie Fisher; I have loved and adored and wanted to be Princess Leia since my earliest recollection. My love of film was in no small way shaped by her early influence in my life. 4) There is a great scene involving some funny demonic chanting... You'll have to watch it yourself. It just sounds twisted if I quote it. 5) Tom Hanks is downtrodden dad and husband Ray Parker who turns vigilante on his creepy neighbors. This was before he did dramatic roles, so he was still doing the Tom Hanks "spaz" thing all the time, and I think he was at his "spastic" peak in this performance. 6) Quotability. "I've never seen that. I've never seen anyone drive their garbage to the end of the driveway and then bang the hell out of it with a stick. I've never seen that." 7) The soundtrack enhances both the funny moments and the scary ones. 8) There is just the right amount of slapstick - Bruce Dern falling off the roof or falling through the rotting floorboards on the Klopeck's porch while holding a plate of brownies, "There go the goddamn brownies." After picking them up off the porch and putting them back on the plate, he presents them to the new neighbors, saying,  "Here you go, sonny. A little somethin' for the sweet tooth."

Note: I had never seen the above-linked trailer before I began writing this review. I could write an entire piece about this trailer. Love for this movie is swelling in my bosom. I am aware that this may diminish my credibility as a critic, but I am OK with that.

film term of the day: Gaffer

Gaffer: the chief electrician on a film crew; maintains lighting equipment and works with the Cinematographer to light the set

The Cinematographer or Director of Photography (DP) is in charge of the artistic look of the film. The gaffer is the grunt who gets it done. The best boy is the gaffer's assistant. The electrical crew reports to the gaffer.

Lighting is one of those things in a movie that you take totally for granted. If it is done well, you don't think about it. If it is done poorly, you will probably think or say to yourself, "Hey, I can't see what's going on." Without light, there is no film exposure (or digital image) and no movie. The gaffer will never be famous, but his work is indispensable.

Example: Sometimes there are little pinpoints of light visible in an actor's eyes during a closeup. These are special lights called eye lights. A light is set up to reflect off the subject's eyes, giving them more depth of emotion and is just one of many lights used at the same time on a given shot. The gaffer is likely to be the one who chooses the right light for this job (as well as all the others), though most DPs are quite knowledgeable about the many kinds of lights available. As a licensed electrician, the gaffer is aware of all aspects of a given light's function including its required wattage, how to handle it safely (most lights on a film set become very hot), what color gels to use in order to achieve a desired effect, correct placement of the light relative to the action or subjects on camera and so on. The gaffer maintains intimate knowledge of all lights on a film set (of which there are easily dozens of varieties and hundreds of individual units). Lights are usually rented for the duration of the production schedule from a warehouse that specializes in film equipment, and this inventory is managed by the gaffer and those who report to him.

This brief article cannot come close to illuminating the amount of knowledge and hands-on expertise a gaffer employs on the job each day.

Jul 12, 2010

film term of the day: Adaptation

Adaptation: a version of an existing story rewritten for the screen (also the name of a film which deals humorously with the idea of adapting a best selling book to screen)

Example: William Goldman's The Princess Bride
At times containing portions of dialog that are a word for word match, both book and film were written by screenwriter William Goldman. The book is written like a movie, and the movie deviates little from the story in the book. Indeed, the book itself claims to be an adaptation - and can be seen as a clever commentary on the subject - its premise being that it is the author's favorite parts of a much older book edited together (or should I say heavily abridged?) to make a more fluid story. Both the film and the book are works of true genius.

Extreme example: The Count of Monte Cristo (starring Jim Caviezel)
Based very loosely on the famous classic novel, nearly the only similarity are characters' names and the manner in which The Count escapes from prison. There were by necessity (the book in its unabridged form is over 1000 pages) so many omissions in the film version that it is barely recognizable as the same story.

Note: lots of film adaptations fall somewhere between the two examples given above, in that many story elements are recognizable from book to film, but liberties have been taken for time or other considerations (obvious e.g. Harry Potter movies).

Personal note: I am typically against novel-abridgment, but found myself coming down on the "for it" side of the argument during my months-long attempt to read The Count of Monte Cristo. I am not averse to reading long novels (I have thoroughly enjoyed longer ones than this), but this one was rambling and inconsistent in its "voice," and just boring. I did read every last word, eventually, and am proud of myself for slogging through; but it shines in my memory as one instance in which I should have read the abridged version instead.

Things I am yelling at the screen while I watch "Eagle Eye"

smooth talker - dialog poorly written, so acting is kind of ridiculous

cliche much?

Shia LaBeouf is so cute


yeah right

marginally thankful none of this is possible

"Thanks, Commish."

the patriot act is the antagonist's impetus?? the antagonist is a computer designed by the government to gather data and predict terrorist activity - lame

it would be cool to ride those airline conveyor belts

please, someone call this computer "bitch" before the movie is over

Billy Bob Thornton's one liners are priceless

Here's some evil computer logic: US Government no longer effective because they kill too much; must remove chain of command; i will  kill American citizens so the government will stop putting the citizens at risk through irresponsible war activities

How do we stop this computer? Bash the huge eye piece? Why didn't i think of that before I emptied out the liquid nitrogen tanks?

Why is there a huge pool beneath the super computer? It can't be there just to cushion the falls of unsuspecting military people who try to stop the computer's evil plot...

Why did the multiple car crashes flip the cop cars over but not the Porsche Cayenne in which Shia is fleeing FBI custody? I'm sensing some Porsche sponsorship in the mix.

Why does a super computer need such a crazy complicated plan to kill the chain of command? It knows where everyone is all the time. Can't it just do the dock-claw thing to the Presidential limo?

Awe, that's sweet. See, the deadbeat dad never remembers his kid's birthday, but Shia wants to bang the kid's mom, so he shows up at the end with cool presents.

Jul 9, 2010

Film Quiz: First of many...

Instructions: Email answers to veronicathefilmcritic@gmail.com
Deadline: July 20th
-Eco-friendly shopping bag with The Film Critic logo, containing journal and pen (also bearing logo)
-selection of used books upon which movies have been based
-Crayola crayons and sketch pad (hey, I'm buying this stuff, so when Wal-Mart has Crayons for 25 cents, it's on...)

Rules: You may not use the internet or any other printed material to find any answers; These answers must be inside you already; You may not ask friends to help because you should be sending them here to play too.

We're on the honor system here, so don't be a jerk.

1. Who was Roger Ebert's original counterpart? Gene Siskel
2. Who plays the villain in Roger Rabbit? Christopher Lloyd
3. Who directed The Last Kiss? Tony Goldwyn (you know him as Carl from Ghost)
4. In which feature film did Halle Berry first appear? Jungle Fever she is Samuel L. Jackson's girlfriend and is beside him when he says, "I am a crack head."
5. In the movie Die Hard John McClain is barefoot because...? A fellow airline passenger had told him that making "fists with his toes" in the carpet would relax him after a flight.
6. The movie The Room has gathered something of a cult following on-line (and at Rocky Horror Picture Show-like late-night theater screenings). What is its claim to fame? It is the worst movie of all time.
but I like John Kenny's answer the best: "For being so bad that it surpassed being bad and turned into something historically awful."
For the following 4 questions, each correct answer will receive one point. Name as many movies as you can by the director listed in which the actor listed appears
7. James Cameron/ Bill Paxton  -  1) Aliens 2) Terminator 3) Titanic 4) True Lies
8. Martin Scorsese/ Leonardo DiCaprio - 1) The Departed 2) Aviator 3) Shutter Island 4) Kings of New York
9. Ridley Scott/ Russell Crowe - 1) Gladiator 2) A Good Year 3) Robin Hood 4) American Gangster
10.Judd Apatow/ Paul Rudd and Steve Carell (together) - 1) 40 Year Old Virgin 2) Knocked Up (my sister is a Judd Apatow nut and has informed me that Steve Carrell appears briefly in Knocked Up and was uncredited)

11. 5 bonus points awarded for the shortest "degrees of Kevin Bacon" answer to the following:
Cary Grant and Zach Efron (NO CHEATING! I will know if Oracle of Bacon has been employed; and stay off imdb!!) - Lots of answers
12. In which film does Kevin Bacon play an actor who is researching a role as a cop by tagging along on an actual murder investigation? Novocaine
13. Who directed Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back? Irvin Kershner
14. Name the actress who won "Best Actress in a supporting role" at the 1993 Oscars. Maris Tomei
15. Which classic film do Harry and Sally discuss throughout When Harry Met Sally? Casablanca

The winners are:
1) John Kenny
2) Raquel
3) SallyO


Jul 8, 2010

Duplicity: A Dynamic Duo Returns

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts chilled me to the bone playing a married couple in Closer. It was fun to see them in something a tad more lighthearted. There is certainly an on-screen chemistry between them, whether they are torturing one another or working a con together. In the end, the story was simple. Two people care about each other, but cannot be sure of the other's dependability. They work out their relationship against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, finally learning to rely on one another when all else fails.

The fabric of this film is cleverly woven; just different enough from other stories of the spy genre to be interesting and new, while carrying many hallmarks that gently lead the viewer to believe the protagonists will get what they want. In reality they are caught up in a much bigger scheme that hits them broadside. The filmmakers took their time putting all the pieces in place, making for a long movie that is fully enjoyable, to the very end.

I held off seeing Duplicity because my hubby described it as "not funny." I'm not sure why I expected it to be funny. I guess the trailer gave me that impression. For some reason, hearing it described as a "drama" turned me off. I'm sure some of my reluctance stemmed from negative associations with Closer. It is not an exaggeration to say that that movie traumatized the hell out of me. It was nearly as traumatic as Your Friends & Neighbors. Well, Duplicity was not funny, but it was nowhere near as dark and humorless as the two I just mentioned. Maybe "cute drama" would do it more justice than "drama". Since this is written and not spoken word, I am going to step out of the article for a brief moment and ask you to read the preceding sentence again. When you get to the word 'drama' read it as if you were making fun of a very melodramatic Shakespearean actor. Thanks. OK, I'm back.

Something I really liked about this movie were the unpredictable time jumps. The narrative skips back a few times to reveal the development of the protagonists' relationship, and in a few instances, doesn't explain the time frame at all until later. It threw me off a little, and lowered my guard, just enough so that I wasn't too frustrated, but having lost my foothold, I paid closer attention to the story right in front of me, instead of trying to figure out what was really happening (as I do when bored by the immediate). In this way, I was with the characters when the unexpected occurred. It is always refreshing when the heist blows up in the protagonist's face. Most of the time, the zany, likable thieves pull off an impossible plan and get away with tons of money (Oceans 11 and Inside Man come to mind, since they have the Julia Roberts and Clive Owen connection). I like it when the protagonists win, but sometimes I like it more when they lose. It is a nice change of pace when things fall apart.

In a way, the fantasy really works for the average Joe or Mary Jane movie-goer. Here are two smart and talented people who are very good at the kind of job we all think is super cool. But wait, they have issues, worries about finding work, doubts about their lovers; and they experience some calamitous disappointments, as we all do. Just because they are beautiful, doesn't mean they aren't vulnerable. I like this sort of fantasy; the sort where I get to relate to extremely intelligent, extremely good looking people (let's just gloss over the fact that in real life, a female spy from the CIA and a male spy from MI6 do not look like Julia Roberts or Clive Owen. They are much more likely to look like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War)  because they lose. I get the same perverse satisfaction from the Bible, when the disciples really really screw up. They were about as perfect as you can get at following Jesus and they did some bad stuff, so I must not be so bad, right? Clears throat. I do find it comforting that these two gifted people are struggling with relationship woes and money issues, just like me. For an added bonus, I could justify my own mundane success (let's face it; good marriages and happy children are not the stuff of blockbuster entertainment), as I observe the following alongside the on-screen couple: possessing great lying skills and talent at tricking people is actually a bad thing that taints their view of the world to the point that they can never know true security with another person, Ha! They say as much, every time they talk to each other. "Can we really do this? Are we ever going to trust each other? Are we still together? Maybe. Maybe?" They may be elite, clever, dashing, but those things don't kiss you goodbye on your way to work. And this is the vague lesson of which they catch a glimmer as everything else falls down around them; the idea they cling to when all their schemes and wits leave them high and dry. Never mind that they have been working together for two years under the assumption that they can be a couple, as long as they have all the earthly luxury money can buy. The money is what they partnered up to obtain. On the brink of getting their big payoff, they confess their love for one another and their determination to make it work despite their trust issues, but that declaration was before they realized they'd been duped. What do they do now? Do they start over? A new con? That could take years. Do they take a stab at suburbia? Things look grim, but they have each other, right? Maybe. All of these questions about where their relationship stands are implied by a slowly receding tracking shot that takes us away from them and to the credits.

Well, hubby was right. It is a drama; not funny, but fun. A cute drama.

Jul 6, 2010

Underrated: movies I like that no one else likes

For a few days now, a list has been growing in my mind (and on little scraps of paper lying on my nightstand and in the notebook in my purse). It consists of movies I like that did not receive critical acclaim, and that is putting it politely. Some are considered trash, others just weren't as beloved as they deserved to be. However, for many and varying reasons, they have found their way into my heart. This exercise in list-making has reminded me to give every film a chance, even if I am sure the trailer has told me all I need to know.

Independence Day comes racing to the front of my mind and so to the top of the list. It is not the best of the bad, but it has its charms. I saw this movie multiple times before I realized that Dr. Okun seemed familiar and somehow likable because he was played by Brent Spiner. I was on a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" kick. It was syndicated at the time, and I would watch it whenever I could with my bff Katie and our buddy Jayson, so it all just clicked one day. His character in Star Trek is quite different from the nerdy, pompous, obnoxiously-invested-in-his-work Dr. Okun. To me, it seems, he must have drawn on his exposure to Star Trek fans to flesh out the finer nuances of a character who clearly does a lot of nerd sparring in his off time. ("Nerd sparring" describes the way in which two very nerdy people "jokingly" trash talk one another about the other's pathetic lack of knowledge regarding things that don't matter, like Star Trek trivia OR things that do matter but which are patently nerdy, like the Periodic Table of Elements. A good example can be found in the movie Trekkies, like any scene. Also, I just Googled the words "nerd sparring" and I'm pretty sure it's never been used before now. Also available were dweeb sparring and geek sparring, but I like the ring of "nerd sparring."

So, back to the movie review. Will Smith is a good actor and is good in this film. There are a lot of big stars in this movie, including one of my all time favorite actors, Jeff Goldblum. I have a thing for Jurassic Park largely because of my love of the Goldblum. His performance in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (especially playing opposite Veronica Cartwright) is what made the movie for me. Harry Connick Jr.'s performance is rather hilarious. I still marvel that he was chosen to play an elite fighter pilot. He's quirky, but in the right way.

The visual effects are totally decent. The story is as campy as any other action movie of the time. The aliens are still scary and believable. There are plenty of comedic moments peppered throughout. I am trying to think of something in this movie that I don't like. Bill Pullman's cheesy speech (and I paraphrase), "if  we win, the whole world will call July 4th Independence Day." Yeah, that part is lame.

I admit it. I have been a little bit closeted about my admiration for this film. There is a back-of-my-mind kind of secret shame going on whenever I hear Independnece Day lumped in with other so-called terrible movies by Roland Emmerich. And I finally know why thinking about Independence Day makes me feel a little guilty. It's because I like this movie, and the only thing I ever hear about it is that it is awful. I have been bullying my appreciation for this movie into a dark corner, but I can't do that if I want to call myself a critic. Whatever I like, I'm gonna like, and whatever I don't like...well, I've never had any problem expressing dislike. It felt good to get that out there. I think I'll have to do this again.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the "Underrated" Series!