October 31, 2008

My Worst Nightmare

Seriously, my worst nightmare.

October 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: The Cable Guy (1996)

Don't confuse October's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) with Larry the Cable Guy's Witless Protection, which I've never seen and have no desire to ever see. This is the Jim Carrey version, and yes, it's a total coincidence that I just posted about his next movie. Apparently this is Jim Carrey Central all of a sudden.

The Cable Guy is not a movie that did much for me on first viewing. I can't actually remember if I saw it in the theater, but it was sometime within its release year and it was still when quoting lines from it was all the rage. I would be remiss right now if I didn't mention that one friend in particular, Jeff Sauer, basically championed this movie for a decade. I'm not sure if it's still his favorite movie, but if not for his enthusiasm, I likely would never have eventually accepted that it's truly funny.

According to IMDb, the title character was originally written for Chris Farley, which would undoubtedly have made for a very different movie. It may have been just as funny, but it wouldn't have been nearly as subversive, creepy, or lasting. Jim Carrey was an odd choice at the time, having just starred in Ace Venture 2: When Nature Calls, but it may have been his work in 1995's Batman Forever that showed he had a bit of a dark side, and we now know that director Ben Stiller has a knack for such comedy (see: Tropic Thunder).

With The Cable Guy, Stiller (whose only notable directing credit had been 1994's Reality Bites) worked from an original screenplay by former Los Angeles city prosecutor Lou Holtz, Jr., whose filmography is positively prolific. How is that possible? Well, none other than a young and uncredited Judd Apatow,
"claiming that he wrote much of the movie's dialogue and many of the scenes", went so far as to challenge an official ruling by the Writers Guild of America (IMDb). So that's one explanation for the career of "Lou Holtz, Jr.," the other being that Lou Holtz wrote this film as a side project when he wasn't leading Notre Dame to ten straight winning seasons in college football.

Whoever wrote it, they certainly weren't reinventing the wheel. Stalker movies have been a common genre since Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, but The Cable Guy deserves credit for both adding comedy and subtracting the silly jump frights common to so many 90's stalker thrillers like Sleeping With the Enemy. In his two star pan of the film, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (back when he didn't love everything) called it, "Single White Female with single white males; Fatal Attraction with sick laughs instead of sick sex."

OK...so what's the problem, if the laughs work?

Well, for most people the problem was seeing Jim Carrey play a wicked weirdo. Janet Maslin of the New York Times spoke for most of America in her scathing review: "
Mr. Carrey, who won legions of fans just by speaking from his buttocks, now tries the creepy gambit of talking with a lisp, sneering at strangers, behaving like a deranged stalker and wallowing in sad, stale references to ancient television shows. The film's only unifying attitudes are misanthropy and contempt. Such antics are sure to scare off part of Mr. Carrey's devoted following...there will be fallout from the fact that he has been paid $20 million for giving a scary, uneven performance that's often painful to watch. This is the way to kill a golden goose.
" So what are you saying, Janet - if I have a lisp, then I'm creepy?

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times chimed in as well:
"Not funny enough to be a successful comedy and not coherent enough to be taken seriously, the latest film to star the talented Jim Carrey is a baffling combination of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective and Cape Fear, a misguided attempt to extend the actor's range by having him play someone who is demented and dangerous." (my emphasis - typecasting, anyone?)

See, but that's the point, Kenneth! He's supposed to be scary and creepy and weird and all of those things that you fear about the strangers in your life who stare just a little too long, stand just a little too close, and generally insert themselves into your personal life. Carrey is amazing in this role because he stays in character so well and, as he did in Dumb and Dumber, somehow injects believable emotion into a caricature of a creep. (Here's where I also mention the bit of trivia that I've always loved about this movie. Apparently, Jim Carrey couldn't dribble a basketball, so it had to be superimposed in post-production. I'm not in the NBA or anything, but doesn't dribbling a basketball qualify as a basic motor function?)

Matthew Broderick was a perfect match opposite Carrey here, as he was in the process of solidifying the character that he's played in pretty much every movie since: the mild-mannered stiff who makes puppy dog faces and always seems be juggling one too many balls in the air of his daily life. His best friend was aptly played by a young Jack Black and his girlfriend was - how about this? - Leslie Mann, future wife of Judd Apatow (seriously, this is how they met, even though his involvement on the film is mostly unknown to this day).

But we can forget about those two, because nobody really knew of either one of them at the time. No, The Cable Guy was Carrey and Broderick's movie to carry, and when it opened on June 14, 1996, expectations were high. The result: a #1 spot at the box office, pulling in $19.8 million opening weekend - just less than the record $20 million paycheck Carrey received for his performance. After that weekend, it was pretty much over for The Cable Guy. The crowded summer was already bursting with three blockbusters in Twister, Mission Impossible, and The Rock, and it would be only three weeks after The Cable Guy opened that Independence Day would arrive and own the month of July on its way to a $300+ million box office gross, tops for the year.

So, what have learned since 1996? That Carrey has finally proved his critics wrong, not only succeeding in his own dramatic roles, but also opening the door for other wacky comedic actors (Will Ferrell) to give drama a shot; that Ben Stiller excels at directing dark and/or satirical comedies; that Judd Apatow owned Hollywood comedies a full decade before anyone even knew it; and that my friend Jeff knew he was talking about when he called The Cable Guy one of the most unappreciated movies of the mid-90's.

(Movie) News You Need to Know: State of Brotherly Love

"St. Paul's Dowdle brothers adopt Coens' formula for success"

I know I'm like a week late on this article, but hey, I was away. Colin Covert had an interesting profile and interview with Drew and John Erick Dowdle, the family filmmaking team behind the recent smash thriller Quarantine. As Colin notes, it appears there may be a new pair of Minnesotan brothers on the scene in Hollywood, this time from St. Paul and not St. Louis Park.

I didn't actually see Quarantine because I'm allergic to gory horror flicks, but after reading Colin's piece I have to admit I'm pretty intrigued by the idea of it, if only because it sounds like these guys really know what they're doing. I had heard positive buzz about their last feature, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, but never realized it was the same people, and never realized the movie was actually never released.

Anyway, the more interesting thing to me is the Coen similarity, not just in the filmmaking background but in the physical resemblance between John Erick Dowdle and Ethan Coen - check this:

In other Coens news, I sadly never made good on my plan to crash the set of A Serious Man. Although I know a few people who were in it, I was just too busy to make it out there and check out the scene. Ah well, it will still be cool to see local landmarks on screen next year.

October 29, 2008

On the Horizon: Liar Liar 2?

Look familiar?

This is the first "On the Horizon"-featured movie that I haven't actually seen, but it's a fun feature and this situation is a little weird, so I'm going with it. You might have seen the trailers for Yes Man start a full promotional campaign in theaters and on TV in recent weeks.

I know others have also noticed that Yes Man appears to be an alternate version of either Bruce Almighty or Liar Liar - witness:

Jim Carrey plays a self-absorbed jerk who receives his comeuppance after some kind of psychological switch turns his life upside down. All of his past decisions and habits are reversed; hilarity and hijinx ensue with a sex joke or embarrassing freak-out every keeping the pace every five minutes. The jerk learns his lesson and everybody goes home happy.

Which movie did I just describe?

Tough to say, but regardless, I'm not really complaining since I kind of like this Jim Carrey. You see, there
are actually five Jim Carreys:
  • the "funny straight guy" Yes Man/Liar Liar/Bruce Almighty Jim Carrey
  • the "ultra dramatic" Eternal Sunshine/The Majestic/Simon Birch Jim Carrey
  • the "creepy" Me, Myself and Irene/The Cable Guy/The Number 23 Jim Carrey
  • the " wacky" In Loving Color/Ace Ventura/The Mask Jim Carrey
  • the "costumed" Grinch/Lemony Snicket/Christmas Carol Jim Carrey
With few exceptions, I'm not a huge fan of the "costumed" or the "creepy" Jim Carreys, but I mostly enjoy the other three. In fact, I think his "wacky" performance in Dumb and Dumber deserves to be considered one of the most impressive roles of the 90's, and no, I'm not joking. Comedy is not as easy as it seems, and no one could have pulled off that role like Carrey did. Anyway, I think he's a great comedic talent who's had a few recent missteps (Fun With Dick and Jane, The Number 23), so if Yes Man is a return to one of his better personas, well that's fine with me.

October 28, 2008

REVIEW: Rachel Getting Married (B+)

The similarities between Rachel Getting Married and last year's Margot at the Wedding didn't occur to me until I left the theater, but it was a realization that explained the detached, annoyed feeling I had as I sat through this movie. Turns out I don't really care about the problems of self-absorbed, upper-class, dysfunctional families who have oh-so-hip weddings in the backyards of their picturesque East Coast homes. My inability to access the emotions of these characters doesn't necessarily make Rachel Getting Married a bad movie, but it does, as evidenced in my score below, prevent me from calling it a great one. While highly superior to Margot, it left me with the same bad taste in my mouth, which was made even more sour because I was really hoping to like it.

It may sound a bit ridiculous if you know their respective styles well, but I still confuse the films of Ted Demme with those of his uncle, Jonathan Demme, despite the fact that the former died in 2002 of a drug-induced heart attack. A shame, because he appeared to be the more intriguing talent in the family; in the last 20 years I consider only three of Jonathan Demme's films notable: The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and The Agronomist (2003). With Rachel Getting Married, Demme returns to the more comedic notes of his 80's films, making it contemporary for today's audience by injecting the comedy into a tragedy. As in Margot at the Wedding, we're meant to laugh at the characters' pain.

Although Anne Hathaway (Get Smart, The Devil Wears Prada) owns Rachel Getting Married, she is in fact Kym, Rachel's younger sister. With permission to leave her drug rehab facility for the weekend of Rachel's wedding, Kym finds herself predictably uncomfortable with her dysfunctional family, the wedding party, and even the wedding guests. In order to mask her insecurities she jokes about her experience in rehab, but nobody finds her attitude funny, especially not her overbearing family. Awkward arguments and even domestic violence lead up to the big wedding day, which we experience, like everything else, in shaky, grainy handheld video. Why? I suppose so we'd think we were watching a home video or documentary about dysfunctional families and not another pretentious indie film about them.

While there wasn't much for me to like about the story and production style of Rachel Getting Married, I can't deny that it was superbly acted and sharply written by first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney). With unpredictable dialogue and a couple of fresh scenes (the dishwasher loading competition stands out), Lumet almost succeeded in making the movie less of a cliché
. Sometimes I felt it was a little overwritten because I couldn't follow the torrid pace of the conversations, but that may have had more to do with Demme's direction than with screenplay.

The acting may be the one area of the film where Demme did not do too much, and it's on fine display here. As sister, mother, and father to our main character, respectively, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger, and Bill Irwin each provide some memorably emotional moments. I'm puzzled by the casting choice of Tunde Adebimpe of the indie rock group TV on the Radio; it seems like he was just playing himself here. Although he has some limited acting experience, I wonder if his character (the groom-to-be) couldn't have added more emotion to the film in the hands of a different actor. Hathaway, who here looks like Madame Tutli Putli from last year's Academy Award-nominated short, continues to show that her true talent was on display in Brokeback Mountain much more than it was in The Princess Diaries franchise or The Devil Wears Prada. She will almost certainly receive award consideration for a performance in a year that has so far only featured a handful of notable dramatic performances from both men and women.

Another tragic family portrait...

It's been an interesting middle third of the year for me. In the past four months I've been to four weddings in four different cities (San Francisco, Minneapolis, San Diego, Boston). All different cities, all different styles (one officiated in Spanish, one featuring traditional Jewish rituals like the breaking of the glass), and yet none of them resembled anything like the tragedies in Rachel Getting Married. I'm not saying that the characters are unrealistic, but to the extremes that the story was taken here, I just couldn't get into it. There will certainly be people who can relate to the family relations in Rachel Getting Married, but I found myself appreciating only a few of the film's elements, so it ended up being a good movie that I just didn't like. Oh well, at least the music at the wedding was different from the usual playlist.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 6
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

October 27, 2008

REVIEW: The Pool (A)

Filmmaker Chris Smith is widely known for directing 1999's cult classic and Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner American Movie, which documented Mark Borchardt's production of the even more obscure cult film Coven. Smith's last project was the little seen The Yes Men (which I skipped because it seemed to be the same as The Corporation and they were released within months of each other in 2003), and he's generally known as a documentarian who focuses on uniquely American stories. If you're reading this with a raised eyebrow, it's probably because you've seen American Movie and you can't imagine how the same director could make a fictional drama set and filmed in India (with dialogue in Hindi, no less). Well, as it turns out, the original source material was a short story written by Smith's longtime producing partner Randy Russell, and it takes place in Iowa, not India.

It's a notable detail because it further demonstrates the brilliant filmmaking talent on display in The Pool; the film is so affectionately made that you'd believe Chris Smith was making an autobiographical movie about growing up in his hometown (the truth is that he became enraptured by the local culture during a trip several years ago). India or Iowa, the result is the same: a light yet extremely enriching drama that stays with you long after you leave the theater.

Venkatesh (Venkatesh Chavan) is an affable, illiterate eighteen year-old working and living on his own in Goa, India. His rural upbringing instilled in him an innocence and work ethic that would have surely guaranteed him success in life - if only he had ever received an education. As is the case with so many millions of laborers around the world, Venkatesh can't get ahead because he's too busy surviving in the present, working long hours as a "room boy" at a hotel and spending his off-hours selling plastic bags on the street with his eleven year-old best friend Jhangir (Jhangir Badshah). When he's not working or pondering his future, Venkatesh is perched in a tree, longingly gazing into the backyard of a wealthy gentleman, where a sparklingly clean swimming pool sits like an oasis in the desert. Rejecting Jhangir's suggestion to sneak in for a dip because he doesn't want to be considered a "thief", Venkatesh commits to somehow gaining access to the pool by charming the man and his gorgeous daughter, Ayesha (Ayesha Mohan).

What's remarkable about The Pool is that
so many wonderfully memorable moments are harvested from such an incredibly simple story. Like the plants around the pool that Venkatesh ends up tending, the film grows and blossoms without relying on major twists or wide emotional swings. It's no wonder Chris Smith won a Special Jury Prize last year at Sundance for the "singularity of vision" he demonstrates in the film. There are universal experiences that we can all relate to, but there is no great effort to make a grand statement about work or education, friendship or love, life or death. There are just four characters who are trying to make it through a formative period in each of their lives, and Smith's ability to direct his amateur cast but still capture their natural behavior is truly amazing - surely an advantage he has as an experienced documentarian.

In a narrative sense, the similarity between The Pool and Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop is striking; there may not be two films this year that are peas from the same pod in that way. Stylistically they are quite different, however, evidenced by the brilliant color on display in The Pool. Working in a much more vibrant setting (Goa, India, compared to Queens, NY), the camera work by Chris Smith himself brings the city and the story to life in vivid detail, making The Pool often feel like a documentary on the Travel Channel. Furthermore, Smith's film feels more delicately and thoughtfully made, like a tasty samosa carefully made with just the right amount of curried spices, then slowly cooked until the full flavor is realized.

Watch this film, then head to your favorite Indian restaurant to extend the enjoyable journey...

Daydreaming in the tree with Jhangir on one day, Venkatesh describes how the sun would beat down on him in the pool and the cool water would feel refreshing on his skin. It's a tender moment that's also a decent descriptor for our experience watching this film. The Pool sits among the bombastic blockbusters and pretentious indies this year as an unassuming and near-perfect gem that reminds you why you love going to the movies. I recommend you take a dip and test out the water for yourself.

Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 49/50= 98% = A

October 22, 2008

Short Cuts: "You Have to Take It"

As if business (the state of being busy, not corporate affairs) hasn't already been keeping me away from here lately, now I'm going to be gone to New England for the rest of the week. First back to Boston for a quick stop and then a weekend wedding in NH.

There are fair number of Boston movie scenes that I could have used here, but the opening scene of
The Departed was one that was fresh in my mind (plus I've already used Good Will Hunting here), even though it has no relation to any of the years that I lived in Boston.

To be honest, I didn't actually like this Best Picture winner, and I would rather have used one of the scenes that features "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys, but I couldn't find it.

While I'm gone I may or may not get my review of
Happy-Go-Lucky finished before it opens here on Friday. If not, thanks for being patient until I get back...

The Departed (2006). Directed by Martin Scorsese (whoops, for the second time!); written by William Monahan (based on the original screenplay by Alan Mak and Felix Chong); starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga, Alex Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Martin Sheen.

October 21, 2008

P.O.V. (Season 20, #16): Soldiers of Conscience

I know it's been a while since I profiled one of these, but if you remember my P.O.V. season preview, many of the ones I wanted to see came at the end of the season, which is now. Plus Up The Yangtze has already been reviewed here. Plus I've been really busy.

Anyway, Soldiers of Conscience was the last official P.O.V. documentary of this season, and wow, what a way to finish the year. I can't say I'm not suspicious that it was scheduled as the last one in order to be close to the election, but then again I'm suspicious about everything happening right now. As if people haven't already made up their minds?

Speaking of the mind - it is the place where this deeply probing documentary lies. Through interviewing current and former soldiers, including several conscientious objectors, Soldiers of Conscience explores the fuzzy area where war and morality intersect. The film, by husband and wife filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weinberg, can be seen for the next few days in its entirety on the P.O.V. website (it may also be showing on your local PBS station for another week or two). Be advised, you will see the horrors of war - several scenes took my breath away. You will see many people dead, and you will see many people die. And this is actual footage, not some stylish, glamorized Hollywood blockbuster. It is not for the faint of heart.

And neither is war, as so many of these soldiers report. This isn't news; the effects of war on the human mind have been documented for years, but only a few soldiers are ever willing to talk about it, and even fewer are willing or able to describe how their mind changed because of their experience in war.

Aidan Delgado, Joshua Casteel, Camilo Mejia and Kevin Benderman are four of those soldiers, all of whom served in Iraq and two of whom successfully received conscientious objector status before their honorable discharge.

Delgado, who was the focus of national attention when he appeared on "60 Minutes" in 2004 while still AWOL, receives the most sympathetic treatment in this film. "There's no higher assertion of freedom than to follow your conscience," says Delgado, who spent nearly a year in jail while waiting for his conscientious objector status to be approved (which is no small feat as described here - sounds like filling your FAFSA out in Chinese and then having to orally defend it in Russian). Says Delgado, "Nothing prepares you for the unmeasured killing of civilians." He recalls an incident (complemented by video footage) in which a political protest in Iraq turned violent. He saw a young boy in the crowd with a grenade and immediately succumbed to his "reflexive fire training". He says he doesn't remember pulling the trigger, and didn't know what happened until he saw the boy later dragged out of a pool of blood. When he got back to base he disarmed his weapon and saw he had fired not one, but 11 shots.

A troubling story, and one that reinforces the lessons being taught by Lt. Col. Peter Kilner at the U.S. Military Academy at Westpoint, who boasts that "reflexive fire training" increased firing rates by over 300% after World War II. As he describes it, such training is meant to override moral reasoning; there is no time to think about what is wrong and right, and the decision-making process is eliminated. "No one likes to kill," says Kilner. "It may be nasty, it may be unpleasant, but the alternative is worse." But what is the alternative? We don't hear. "I've never killed anyone, but I've talked to a lot of people who have," finishes Kilner. More from him later.

Carlos Meija was at the Army recruiting office signing his enlistment papers on the morning of September 11, 2001. He remembers being disturbed at the behavior around him during basic training, including his own. He couldn't believe "how easy it was when you're surrounded by people shouting 'Kill, Kill, Kill!', to also shout 'Kill!'." However, he describes how during his time in Iraq he was never able to "make the jump" and see the enemy as subhuman. Rather, he saw the enemy as himself - a young soldier with orders to follow.
Although a commanding officer reassured him "if you hurt others because you have to, and without hatred in your heart, it's alright," Meija applied for conscientious objector status and was immediately ostracized by his platoon: "They see you as the enemy." Meija is now the co-chair of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

"We sleep comfortably in our beds because violent men do violent things on our behalf," explains Joshua Casteel, an Evangelical Christian who left the army after a short stint and then reenlisted again after 9/11. It's a saying he read long ago, and a saying he no longer believes. While serving as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, Casteel had his "crystallization of conscience" (the moment necessary to prove when applying for conscientious objector status). He was interrogating a jihadist and surprisingly found himself stuck in a tit-for-tat stalemate discussion about the misinterpreted religious duty to kill the enemy. He realized neither he or the jihadist was getting anywhere, but he desperately wanted to continue the discussion and learn more about the jihadist's views. It was then that Casteel decided he had to get out, reasoning that "following Christ means taking seriously the charge for peace-making."

The role of religion springs up like this several times in the film (including Sgt. Kevin Benderman's description of his crystallization of conscience: "Why am I carrying an M-16 around in the Garden of Eden?"), but one moment really troubled me. Lt. Col. Kilner uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to justify the need for war. What if the Samaritan would have come earlier, asks Kilner. Would it have been better for him to wait for the beating to stop before helping, or would it have been better to use force - lethal force if necessary - to stop the beating?

It's not that this question isn't worthy of discussion, but it reveals a total misunderstanding of the parable. It wasn't about what the Samaritan did, but who the Samaritan was, and the fact that both a priest and a Levite passed by the victim first and did nothing. Pointing out this misunderstanding doesn't answer Kilner's question, but it still concerns me that the military continues to refashion religious scripture and make it convenient to the moral reasoning they need to justify to themselves that killing is excusable.

Oops. Have I shown my colors? Yes, I sympathize with these soldiers. I am a person of conscience, I suppose, and I'm trouble that so many people have been thrown into the mess of war, either forcibly or voluntarily, only to realize that taking another life isn't as easy it seems in so many video games and movies. "Some people say, 'Once a soldier, always a soldier,'" says Delgado. "Well, once a human being, always a human being." I agree, while fully admitting that I've never been a soldier in any military and can only speak from the "human being" perspective.

Kilner claims that a conscientious objector's "freedom to dissent is made possible by the very soldiers they criticize." Well...maybe, but by that stretch reasoning I'm obliged to thank the military for everything I have in my life, including my opinions, right? So how does it work in a country like Costa Rica, which has no standing military? And what about Germany? According to a statistic shown in the film (which I have yet to corroborate), 150,000 Germans were drafted into mandatory military service in 2004. Of these, 70,000 served in the military and 80,000 became conscientious objectors and completed domestic community service instead.

It's an incredible statistic, and it's no wonder it comes right after Delgado makes an interesting insight about World War II. He claims that military promoters often ask, "What if no one had stopped Hitler?," to which he replies, "Well, what if there would have been enough conscientious objectors in Hitler's army?" It's a clever, unprovable, and naive point, which Delgado readily admits. But he is convinced, "peace is not a Utopian vision."

Soldiers of Conscience is more of a psychological documentary than a political documentary, and although it gives fair screen time to Kilner (interesting name, I just noticed) and other active soldiers who morally justify killing, it's not quite as even-handed as it claims. Let's just say you're probably not going to gain a new sympathy for military philosophy. Additionally, the disturbing visuals
and somewhat scattered editing sometimes make it confusing for the viewer to figure out who is saying what and which pictures and videos actually relate to our subjects. Not a major problem, but one that bugged me a little bit.

As always, the conversation can be continued at the P.O.V. blog, where already many former and active members of the military have spoken their mind on the issue and the film. Additionally, you can find updates about the film's subjects and learn more about the moral justification for killing on Kilner's blog.

October 20, 2008

Theater Seens: Mulholland Drive

It's probably pretty obvious by now that 95% of the movies I see are new releases. I might rent one movie a year (I've never had a Blockbuster or Netflix account), or I might borrow a DVD from a friend or from the library, or I might see an older movie on the new Encore channel lineup I just got. But the vast majority of the time, if I'm seeing a movie, I'm sitting in a theater. What this means is there are virtually no newly released DVDs I would watch (since I saw what I wanted to see in the theater), and there are many hundreds of older films I'd like to see. I just can't find the time, and until Hollywood adopts my soon-to-be-trademarked Movie Offseason, I'll probably continue my habit.

Anyway, all of this is to say that I see lot of movies in movie theaters. As such, I have many great memories of movies that I experienced for the first time in the theater. With "Theater Seens", I'll simply recall a scene from a particular movie that was memorably gripping, hilarious, moving, or frightening when I saw it in the theater. If I can find a YouTube clip of it, so much the better. There's no way my experience could ever be recreated, of course, because I'll never see a particular scene or a particular movie again in the theater for the first time, and that makes all the difference.

Movie: Mulholland Drive
Scene: Winkie's Diner/Dan's Dream
Where: Copley Place Cinemas, Boston, MA
When: October, 2001

Seven years ago this week, I believe it was, I saw Mulholland Drive at the Copley Place Cinemas in the Prudential Building in Boston (the theater has apparently since closed and been refashioned as a Barney's New York clothing store...rage...). I believe it was opening day, Friday afternoon. I can't even remember why I went, considering I'd never seen a David Lynch film before (why start then?). So I went alone, naively expecting...who knows?

This was at a time when the use of time-shifting in movies was really popular (Memento had been released that spring), and it was a trend that I kind of liked - and still do, actually. It keeps you guessing. Or in the case of Mulholland Drive, it keeps you guessing, and guessing, and guessing, and guessing. And then you realize time has nothing to do with it because it's just straight up madness with no beginning, middle, or end. I don't think I've ever been more relieved after seeing a movie as I was when I got home and read Roger Ebert's review, in which he explained that, in fact, there was nothing to explain. It's still one of my favorite reviews of Ebert's - maybe my favorite of any that he's ever written.

Although I can't remember the exact moment during Mulholland Drive that I realized I was essentially dreaming, I know there was one scene that definitely made me want to wake up: Dan meets his friend for breakfast at Winkie's Diner on Sunset Blvd., which happens to be the location of his bizarre recurring dream. In it, he and his friend sit in the diner, terrified of a mysterious man hiding behind the dumpster behind the building. "That's it," Dan tells his annoyed friend, who immediately gets up to lead Dan out behind the building to prove his silly bogey-man dream is just that.

What's so memorable for me about this scene was how insanely scared I was. And by what?! This is broad daylight, there's no creepy music, and there's no murderer lurking in the corner. It's just a guy telling his friend about a weird dream! The only explanation, other than the fact that I'm a big baby, is that by this point I had already learned that nothing was predictable in this movie, and if a character was hinting at a foreboding future, it was probably going to turn out ugly.

Indeed, my reaction in my seat exactly mirrored Dan's as the face appears from behind the corner. I don't think the handful of people in the theater with me noticed (speaking of them, never before or since have I actually heard half-hypnotized people unconsciously mutter aloud, "What the...?," so many times during a movie), or they just may have fainted themselves as well.

If you've seen Mulholland Drive you know this is one of many bizarre scenes, and you might wonder why this one in particular sticks with me. Well, I guess this was just the first time David Lynch really "got" me. Maybe it's just that simple. Because of this scene and many others (and my ignorance going into it), Mulholland Drive remains the most surreal, bewildering theater experience I've ever had. I was in such a daze as I walked out that I almost forgot how to get back to the T stop. It's almost a wonder no one asked me if I needed assistance.

I doubt it, but I have to ask: Did anyone else get rocked by this scene in the theater?

October 17, 2008


I liked Oliver Stone's W. because it was validating. Believe it or not, I don't have much of a problem with George W. Bush. Never really have for the last five or six years, since whenever I figured out that he is not the man with the plan, but the man with the microphone. No, Bush is not my problem - the people that have surrounded him are: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, and most of all, you - all of you.

So seeing Bush portrayed as a genuinely honest simpleton and not a calculating, conniving politician was a welcome sight. Far too many people are in the business of scapegoating while far too many of the people who are guilty, like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, have escaped unnoticed. With W., Oliver Stone doesn't necessarily try to take down anyone in particular, even Bush, but rather tries to demonstrate to us that the people directing this country have been doing so with discordant motives. George W. Bush wants to prove wrong his disapproving father George H.W. Bush. Dick Cheney wants to create an oil-fueled American empire. Condoleeza Rice wants to be accepted in her role. Karl Rove wants to influence the American public. Donald Rumsfeld wants to show off his new, futuristic military strategy. And Colin Powell, well he just wants to do the right thing.

Mix all of these motives in the same pot, let them simmer for a few years, and serve. Those of us who didn't recoil from our first taste of the result are now finally realizing that what we ate isn't sitting very well. Indeed, the American public is suffering from a bad case of political indigestion, and for many people, W., will seem like just the Pepto-Bismol they need. But if you ask me,
I'm past the need for Pepto-Bismol; I don't want the indigestion to simply go away with a nasty or vindictive movie. I would rather find out who stepped away from the stove while this noxious stew was cooking (here's a hint - it was the American voting public) and make sure that it doesn't happen again.

This is why your expectations of W. will be the defining difference between your reaction to the film and mine. While it was a bit tamer than I expected, I never really though Oliver Stone would actually make a farcical, goofy satire about the sitting president. Stone doesn't make comedies. He wants to be taken seriously, and he wants to push buttons. In this case, perhaps, he wanted to influence an election or bring our attention back to Iraq (nearly half the film is about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East). Any way you look at it, there was little reason to think W. was going to be an outrageous affair, but I can understand the disappointment that it wasn't one. The way I see it, there's not much funny about what's been going on during the last seven years (I consider Bush's presidency really beginning with 9/11), which may explain why the laughs I experienced throughout this movie were so awkward. My first "ha" was genuine, but my second "ha" didn't feel right, because this bad joke isn't actually that much of a joke at all.

Which is not to say that W. doesn't have its moments of sharp comedy. On the contrary, the acting may be the most amusing and outright impressive that you'll see all year from an ensemble cast. As college-age Bush, present-day Bush, and every Bush in between, Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) really takes his title character to heart, imbuing the President with much more emotion and self-examination than we've seen from the real man's public persona. This isn't an award-worthy performance, but it's an admirable and amusing one, and it was better than I expected. The same unfortunately can't be said for Jeffrey Wright (The Invasion, a.k.a. The Worst Movie of 2007) as Colin Powell, who neither looks nor sounds anything like the former Secretary of State, even if he does demonstrate the same quiet demeanor.

Moving on, the rest of the cast is truly outstanding. Thandie Newton (Run Fatboy Run) dials in the performance of a lifetime as Condoleeza Rice, while fellow Brit Toby Jones (The Mist) nails Karl Rove right down to the smirking twinkle in his eye. Capably filling out the White House cast are Scott Glenn (The Bourne Ultimatum) as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Dreyfuss (Poseidon) as Dick Cheney, and Rob Corddry (Harold & Kumar...Guantanamo Bay) as infamously annoying Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Completing the Bush clan are James Cromwell (Spider-Man 3) as George H.W., Elizabeth Banks (Meet Dave) as Laura, and Ellen Burstyn (The Fountain) as Barbara.

It's a remarkable cast from top to bottom, but as I already mentioned they're not given the task of hamming it up and winking at the camera. They play their roles straight and true, and the result resembles a "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which no jokes are actually written. Imagine Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, but instead of poking fun she just repeats the actual words of Sarah Palin and delivers them with a straight face. Maybe funny, but not quite as funny, right?

Aside from a handful of missed opportunities by screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also co-wrote Stone's acclaimed Wall Street), W.'s other nagging problem is that the disjointed narrative stalls multiple times (no more so than when Bush has his religious reawakening) and is bookended by a baseball analogy that doesn't seem to have any important purpose.
Maybe, like Spike Lee's recent Miracle at St. Anna, W. is just overly ambitious. It appears Stone wanted to make a historical film, a biopic, an indictment on the Iraq War planning, and a dramedy - all at once. There's a little something for everyone, but at the same time not enough to satisfy most people's expectations or desires.

If even half of this portrayal is true, riots are in order...

So W. isn't excellent, but the performances are entertaining and the content is enraging. Of course it's not a documentary, but enough of the facts are known that Stone doesn't really need to stretch the truth, and it doesn't really matter anyway. The fact is, Bush & Co. are going to be gone and never heard from again, and we're all left behind with the mess. W. doesn't offer answers and it doesn't offer comfort via comedy; it's just there to needle you about the reality of our situation. You may not leave having learned anything new, but I guarantee you'll chuckle the next time you see any of these figureheads on TV.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 44/50= 88% = B+

October 16, 2008

300 Words About: The Grocer's Son

(Ed. Note: This review was originally posted on April 28th, 2008, but the film opens in Minneapolis tomorrow and it deserves the spotlight again.)

I don't think I'm any form of synesthete, but I find that some films I see almost have a "taste" or "flavor" to them. Is that weird? Such was the case with The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de L'íepicier), a romantic dramedy by the young French writer/director Eric Guirado. Filmed primarily in the French countryside, it's a feast for the senses. You smell the summer air, hear nature's orchestra, and taste the fresh food. None of this has much to do with the story, but it shows the affectionate warmth Guirado has for all aspects of his film, including the characters.

Antoine (Nicolas Cazalé) is a self-centered bachelor who 10 years ago left his parents and his family grocery in Provence for the bright lights of Lyon. When his father suffers a heart attack, Antoine moves home for the summer to help his mother and drive the grocery-mobile on its daily route along the winding country roads in the south of France. Fortunately for him, his friend and secret crush, Claire (Clotilde Hesme), is looking for a secluded place to study for her graduate school exams, and accepts his offer to join him in Provence. What Antoine hopes will be a perfect summer soon turns sour as he faces boredom with his job, quarrels with his dysfunctional family, and frustration with the free-spirited Claire's disinterest in him, not to mention her unwavering plan to move to Spain at summer's end.

Guirado writes great comedy, relatable drama, and most importantly, likable characters - elements a lot of similar American films (Margot at the Wedding) are sorely lacking. Nobody's falling all over each other trying to be too witty and sarcastic, and there aren't outrageous situations (Little Miss Sunshine) that exist only for cheap comedy. In other words, we enjoy a fresh, believable version of what is, in essence, a really simple story. The acting is terrific across the board, wonderfully led by the tender and honest moments between Hesme and Cazalé, who bears an uncanny resemblance to fellow Frenchman Olivier Martinez (Unfaithful).

If you happen to be in the mood for a beautifully shot, skillfully acted and thoughtfully written film featuring a great soundtrack (and why wouldn't you be?), The Grocer's Son will leave you smiling. It was picked up by Film Movement last month for distribution, so keep an eye out for its availability in the next year.

October 14, 2008

REVIEW: Miracle at St. Anna (B)

(This is a mess. It's lazy writing and a poor review, but I saw this several weeks ago and I've forced myself to put my thoughts down just to make sure I thought what I actually thought about it. So I apologize in advance; if you decide to wade through this just don't expect the typical brilliance and luminous, poetic writing for which I've won so many movie blogging awards.)

In reviewing Chop Shop several months ago, I somewhat brazenly called Ramin Bahrani “
one of the most daring filmmakers currently working”, noting his stripped-down cinematography and defiant dismissal of conventional elements of film - such as story and structure. While Spike Lee adds a bit more artistic flavor to his work than Bahrani, he also is a film pioneer, a man with an idea and a camera who violently throws his vision in your face and simply smirks when, weeks or months later and after you take down your defenses, you realize that what you experienced was actually the work of cunning genius.

When it comes to Spike Lee, Hollywood and most of the American public are going to realize this far too late, long after his best years are behind him. That Lee hasn't won an Oscar in 20 years of filmmaking isn't as shocking as it is shameful. I'm not one for handing out awards for the wrong reasons, but the simple fact is that few people have influenced American cinema so much while receiving so little credit in the process. For that matter, few directors have worked at such a high level without making a film that is clearly Oscar bait.

Miracle at St. Anna is Lee's Oscar bait. No doubt frustrated by the shrugged shoulders (mine included) surrounding his last few features, including She Hate Me and Inside Man, it appears Lee felt it was time to take a much bigger swing with a much bigger bat. His first war epic (and one of the few features he's made outside of New York City) is truly a swing for the fences, a last-second heave, a Hail Mary. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, Miracle at St. Anna is plenty long, but if you ask Lee I'm sure it's not long enough. Touching on everything from racism in the U.S. Military to Catholic mysticism to interracial romance to the cultural consequences of fascism, it's an extremely ambitious film that ultimately ends up getting ahead of itself, like an idealistic high school senior who proudly declares they're going to tackle all of the wrongs in the world at the same time (and I say that having been that idealistic high school senior a decade ago).

In this way, then, Miracle at St. Anna's success depends on your expectations. You could judge it more easily if it were a one-dimensional film, but it's a project so big that it almost achieves an immunity to specific criticisms; you're throwing darts in the same way Lee is, and they ironically don't stick any better than his do: We've seen this before! Um, yeah - so? Shouldn't that be said about every war movie then? Lee takes too many artistic freedoms in telling the story! This isn't a documentary, and it's based on a novel anyway. It's too long and plodding! Compared to what, Letters from Iwo Jima? All of the white characters are racist! It's a Spike Lee movie, and besides, that doesn't mean that none of them would have been. It's an engaging story that could have made for a better movie but Lee jumps around too much and obnoxiously bashes us over the head with the themes and seems to be unsure of exactly what imperative point he's trying to make! Hey, I was going to say that!

It's true. There's so much going on here that you leave overwhelmed and without a clear grasp of what Lee's vision was for this movie. It's certainly worth mentioning that this is not his original story - the screenplay was adapted by James McBride from his own novel of the same name, so in one sense this film is almost as much his as it is Lee's. I haven't read the book, but I feel like McBride and Lee could have together made this very important story more accessible for the viewing public (who have done their best to ensure an incredibly brief theatrical run by staying away from it in droves).

But there I'm stuck again; I want to criticize it for "doing too much" but at the same time praise it for rising above the conventions of the war movie genre. Starting out as a murder mystery in early 1980's New York City, Miracle at St. Anna moves full steam ahead into a major battle scene, switches gears into a tender family comedy, upshifts to a romantic drama, and comes full circle again several more times. We hear at least four languages and end up in the U.S. several times. Did I mention the whole movie is a flashback?

I say all this because at the end of the day, I liked Miracle at St. Anna because it presents a more engrossing story than so many other classic and recent war epics, Letters from Iwo Jima included. Like Flags of Our Fathers (which I prefer), Miracle at St. Anna isn't really about the war, it's about the soldiers and the culture that supports, or in this case weakens, their resolve in the war. If I wanted to watch stomach-churning battle scenes over and over, I could take my pick from any Mel Gibson movie or History Channel documentary. But I don't want to watch that, and I wish Spike Lee knew this because he nearly set a new standard for horrifically graphic violence in one scene (that I swore elicited at least one laugh in the audience, but then I suppose there's nothing as funny as a crying infant skewered by a bayonet as it lays on its dead mother's breast). What I want to watch is the soldiers' story, and I want it to relate to their lives at home. It's probably no surprise, then, that I've found Stop-Loss to be the best movie yet about the Iraq War.

Believable characters required good acting, however, and Miracle at St. Anna has it in spades. With this movie, Lee has given four promising, young African-American actors what should be a major résumé
builder. All of them are familiar faces, but only Derek Luke (Catch a Fire, Antwone Fisher) is a household name. Ironically, he's the weakest link in this particular cast, which is also led by Omar Benson Miller (Things We Lost in the Fire), Michael Ealy (Barbershop), and Laz Alonso (Stomp the Yard, Jarhead). I wouldn't blink if any of these guys received Oscar buzz, but I'm not necessarily going to expect it, either, especially not in a movie that has been so universally panned.

Not the faces that usually come to mind when you picture WW II veterans...

I know I was all over the place with my thoughts here, but like Lee I remain unapologetic, and I accept that I've done little here other than state my preference for one type of war movie over another (and if I've gotten out of summarizing the movie, so much the better!). If you want a comforting, "patriotic" war movie, you're not going to get it with Miracle at St. Anna. Lee throws convention out the window and turns McBride's novel into a bold, brash statement about this country's longstanding ignorance regarding African-Americans in the U.S. armed forces, among many other things. True to tradition, I predict this movie to eventually be looked back on with more praise than it initially received.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

October 10, 2008

REVIEW: Body of Lies (C+)

"Trust no one. Deceive everyone.," declares the official tagline for Ridley Scott's Body of Lies. The phrasing is an appropriate metaphor for the movie in two ways: 1.) the wording is as unoriginal and bland as the story itself, and 2.) it describes the internal marketing strategy for this movie at Warner Bros., since they're clearly trying to deceive us into thinking we're getting something richer than the action-packed trailer suggests.

It was only last April that Washington Post columnist David Ignatius's bestselling novel of the same name was released. Filming on Body of Lies began in September. How did they do that, and what was the rush anyway? We're guaranteed years more of these movies about Iraq and the "War on Terror" (a veritable genre is developing), so what was accomplished by fast-tracking this one for an October surprise?

As it happens, the biggest surprise in Body of Lies is the fact that it's not a better movie. Sir Ridley Scott's track record has been shaky in the last few years (though I don't think either American Gangster nor A Good Year were as outright terrible as some people think), but this is still a director who helmed a Best Picture winner within the last decade (not to mention Blade Runner decades ago), so the name automatically carries a fairly high level of expectation. Body of Lies marks the third time in as many years Scott has directed Russell Crowe, and the first time he's worked with the reliably great Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond, The Departed).

Unfortunately, this truly A-list trio has produced a truly C-grade movie. Body of Lies is admittedly better than several of its cousins (The Kingdom, Rendition), but despite an experienced director and committed cast, it still ends up achieving only mediocrity. It's almost as if Ridley Scott knew that substance was lacking but just decided to produce his way out of it and hope nobody noticed. Significantly slicker and more visually realistic than its predecessors, Body of Lies commands your attention only to tell you something annoyingly trivial. What was the point of this again?

Oh yeah, to celebrate jingoism and reinforce toxic stereotypes about the Middle East. Look, I'm not saying terrorism isn't a real threat and that these movies don't have some educational potential, but at this point the "rogue American hero infiltrating terror cells and romancing the beautiful local woman" is a pretty stale set-up, and we never learn any lesson at the end anyway, do we?
The number of clichés on display here is almost breathtaking; it's disconcerting and frankly insulting, for example, to see CIA agents continue to disguise themselves in foreign countries by wearing track jackets, sunglasses, and floppy hats, successfully establishing themselves as the only people in the country ever dressed like that.

But I'm asking for too much if I'm asking for a new story. It's just that I would enjoy something fresh, a crazy conspiracy theory or a shocking twist at the end - anything new. If I'm not going to get anything meaningful out of these movies, at least entertain me. Russell Crowe knows this, otherwise why would he ham up his performance as a hilarious hybrid of Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush? Leonardo DiCaprio
(whose "costume" here is almost comical: brown contact lenses and a lumberjack goatee?) knows this, otherwise why would he leave me near tears laughing at the scene with the children at lunch, one of the funniest I've seen all year? In fact if it wasn't for Crowe, Russell, and what should finally be a star-making turn for Mark Strong (Sunshine; Stardust), the movie would be almost unbearable to sit through, even if it is kind of pretty to look at.

Hollywood surrenders to contrivances and clichés yet again...

If any of this sounded familiar as you were reading it, imagine how I felt writing it. I already reviewed this movie here, here, here, here, here, and, most importantly, here. Turn a synopsis from any of those reviews into a Mad Lib and you'll likely end up summarizing Body of Lies in the process.

Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+

October 9, 2008

Reminder: League Registration Closes Tomorrow!

Twelve people have so far successfully conquered the online registration for the second season of the Getafilm Box Office Moguls League. There is still time to join! After tomorrow you will be locked out and forced to spend the season watching enviously from the sidelines. Your movie fandom is at stake!

Those people already in have no doubt lost sleep over the last week second-guessing their picks. Remember, you can change them whenever you want throughout the season - IF the movie you pick hasn't opened yet, and if you can afford it. I've already completely changed mine once. Keep in mind the price for each movie goes up as the release date nears. (This game is free, by the way - you're "given" $100 to invest.)

If you're not yet in, follow these "simple" rules. (I'm just pasting these from the last post):

1.) Register and create a Box Office Moguls (not Ultimate Movie Moguls) studio with a funny name. If you played last season you can just sign in and create a new studio.

2.) Join the existing private Box Office Moguls league named "Getafilm Season #2". You can search for it or I think you try from the league homepage here. The password is "getafilm". Pretty tricky. It's also the password for my offshore account.

3.) Instruct the next person you talk to in completing steps 1 and 2 at the nearest computer.

4.) Choose your "slate" of movies. You can choose up to 8, but each movie "costs" you an amount of money based on the projected success of its theater run. Huge blockbusters will cost you more and they'll make the most, but what if they bomb? And what if you choose a small, cheap independent film that slowly, gradually gains traction and becomes a massive box office success (hello, Juno)? Choose your slate now, but remember that you can change movies throughout the season as long as the movie you pick up hasn't been released anywhere yet.

5.) Tell everyone you know to go see and the movies you picked.

6.) Follow the success of each movie throughout the season.

7.) Forget to track the success of each movie throughout the season.

Talk trash on the league's message board.

Laugh at me when my indie sleeper pick opens in 63 theaters and then disappears after two weeks.

10.) Win an amazing grand prize. I can't say anything yet, but it may or may not involve a chance to announce the Best Picture winner at next year's Academy Awards ceremony.

For more information (including a very important tip) and to hear the chatter from those who have already joined, revisit the original announcement from last Friday.

Twelve people is fine and all, but come on, don't you people have any friends who like to play meaningless games? Get 'em in!

Good luck and thanks for playing!

October 8, 2008

Short Cuts: "In This Life or the Next"

Gladiator (2000). Directed by Ridley Scott; written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson; starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, and Djimon Hounsou.

October 6, 2008

REVIEW: Blindness (D)

Maybe two years ago, my brother was telling me about one of the best books he'd ever read. I'd never heard of "Blindness", the novel by Portuguese author José Saramago, but it sounded pretty amazing. Ironically, both of us were disappointed when we soon learned it was going to be adapted into a movie - he out of concern that it wouldn't do justice to the book, and me out of horror after discovering it would star Julianne Moore in the lead role. It takes maybe seven positive elements to get me to a movie starring her these days, and Blindness had five: Mark Ruffalo (Reservation Road), Alice Braga (Redbelt), Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel), Fernando Meirelles, and an exotic shooting location (Montevideo and São Paulo). Five is close enough, I figured - quite incorrectly.

Soon into this movie, I did indeed become overwhelmed with fear of going blind, mostly because I realized that if it got any worse I wouldn't be able to safely flee the theater. Easily one of the worst movies I've seen all year, Fernando Meirelles' Blindness can only be a total nightmare for fans of the book and a complete shock to everyone else. How could such an interesting concept go so horribly wrong?

The title isn't too creative, but it's about as descriptive as it needs to be. One by one, everyone in the world suddenly and mysteriously loses their eyesight. Called the "white sickness" (those who suffer from it only see constant white light), the condition causes a SARS-like panic among the public, and the first major group of victims (all of whom are nameless) is quarantined in an abandoned hospital, or dorm, or factory - whatever that was. An eye doctor (Ruffalo) is one of these early victims, and for reasons unexplained, his wife (Moore) is the one person in the world who is immune to the "infection".

The majority of the movie takes place in the three wards of this asylum, where we witness what amounts to a crazy social experiment reminiscent of "Lord of the Flies". All cultural norms gradually erode away as blind groups in the wards turn on each other in a desperate attempt to stay alive. It's a situation that just oozes potential for studies in leadership, morality, responsibility, and the degradation of human culture, but we're left seeing decaying limbs, human waste, and fat, naked bodies. In easily the most disturbing scene of the movie, an African-American male (an interesting casting note?) from the violent, ruling ward punches a woman to death while raping her. Any remnants of hope I had for mankind were completely dashed when this scene evoked laughs in the audience. This world is over.

In between the disgusting imagery and bad acting throughout the majority of Blindness, we actually don't see much at all. Meirelles does his best to convince us that we're actually going blind, manipulatively using blurred focus, mixed-scene editing, washed-out lighting and, in one overlong scene, a completely black screen backed by exaggerated sound effects. None of this worked, of course, but that dark scene did satisfy my curiosity about whether the movie would be better if I simply closed my eyes (it wasn't). When the group anticlimactically reenters society, Meirelles switches gears, somehow downshifting from a terrible suspense thriller to a senseless horror flick with the comically animalistic human behavior seen in Dawn of the Dead and other recent zombie movies. We're even graced with a topless shower scene, one of many gratuitously "dramatic" moments Meirelles tosses in just to remind us that he's taking this seriously. Sound familiar? M. Night Shyamalan employed the same tactic to disastrous effect in The Happening, a movie which Meirelles should be thankful already firmly holds the title of worst movie of 2008.

[Agh, I've been sitting here for 15 minutes unsuccessfully trying to caption this PERFECT picture with a wicked description! Share yours in the comments...]

What's more surprising? That I made it through this entire movie, or that I still have hope for the future projects of Fernando Meirelles? It would take a lot more than one bad movie - even one as horrendous as Blindness - to cancel out the brilliance of City of God, and there was more than enough potential in The Constant Gardener and this year's overlooked City of Men to keep faith that Meirelles still has talent and artistic vision to spare. This was just a case of a filmmaker completely inhabiting his own picture, from the awkwardly-used cinematography to the carefully constructed deserted city, which in my opinion looked much more realistic in I Am Legend, Children of Men, and even a movie like Vanilla Sky. When every piece of trash and every burning car is perfectly placed in each scene, what is actually a real city location begins to look way too much like a set. Whatever - this is obviously the least among the problems found in Blindness. As it is, you'll be wasting the eyesight that you may still have in sitting through this movie. Your vision (and your hard-earned money) would be much better spent on this year's uplifting Blindsight.

Writing - 5
Acting - 6
Production - 6
Emotional Impact - 4
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 31/50= 62% = D

REVIEW: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (B)

I had a really weird feeling about this blog at one point during How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. As Simon Pegg's character lashed out against Kirsten Dunst's character for her committed interest to celebrity news and gossip, I thought, "Wait a minute. That's kind of what I'm doing, isn't it? Writing about movie stars and supporting the business and culture of Hollywood?" Hmm...well hopefully I'm successful in digging a little bit deeper into all of these movies I see, but it was still an important reminder that so many of the words I'm writing here are completely meaningless to the advancement or progress of humankind. Not that I ever had allusions otherwise, mind you, but just remember that all the time you spend reading about movies and all the time I spend writing about them could certainly be spent doing something more productive. Like watching more movies...just kidding.

Based on the memoir by British journalist Toby Young about his five years at Vanity Fair magazine, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People has been somewhat accurately compared to The Devil Wears Prada. The difference, of course, is that the central character is an obnoxious man instead of an innocent young woman. Enter Pegg, who's star has been steadily on the rise since 2004's Shaun of the Dead, nevermind the occasional starring role in forgettable fluff like Mission Impossible III and Run Fatboy Run. Don't expect much more substance in How to Lose Friends, but do expect to witness Pegg's consistently amusing charm on display again. Like several American actors at different times in their careers (Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller among them), Pegg is becoming the go-to guy for roles that call for equal parts sleaze, raunch, and romantic charm - and a British accent. (Maybe i
t's no surprise, then, that Trekkies are concerned about the casting of Simon Pegg as Scotty in J.J. Abram's upcoming Star Trek remake).

As is the case in most of the movies in this "bawdy romantic comedy" genre, we find it hard to root for the protagonist and even harder to keep hope alive that a new twist will work its way into the formulaic story. I'll save you the suspense: no twist appears. His reputation as a troublemaker firmly established in Britain, magazine editor Sidney Young (Pegg) is hired to take a position at the fictional Sharp's Magazine in New York City. His arrival is met with disdainful disinterest by his co-workers, namely Alison Olsen (Dunst), who is alternately his mentor and main flirt, depending on the day. Sidney's bizarre behavior and off-putting attitude about magazine culture (which I described earlier) threaten his stay at Sharp's, but not before he wins over Hollywood starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox, Transformers) and the Big Boss Editor Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man).

Does any of this matter? No. How to Lose Friends is really a star-making vehicle for Simon Pegg, an attempt to expose him to Americans who still don't recognize his name. Those of us who are already fans will have a good amount of fun, but despite the bizarre tandem of Megan Fox and Kirsten Dunst (who I don't believe even exchange dialogue here), and despite the fact that it's based on a true story, something tells me the general public is not going to be drawn to a movie about a guy they've never heard of, starring a guy they've never heard of. Their loss, I suppose. We'll see what happens after Star Trek.

Trivia: the only movie in which a character is seen eating an entire sandwich from start to finish...

Although How to Lose Friends and Alienate People defies not one convention of the genre in which it firmly sits, Simon Pegg's commits himself to the role well enough to provide some really funny moments. The screenplay by Peter Straughan features some great one-liners, and director Robert Weide ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") wisely gets out of the way and allows Pegg to take center stage. It's a movie that's probably only funny the first time around, and there are few lessons to take from it that would otherwise make it worthwhile - unless you consider that whole addiction to Hollywood thing...

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 2

Total: 42/50= 84% = B
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