Monday, January 29, 2007

Ready to Rumble? Reviews of SMOKING ACES, NOTES ON A SCANDAL, and MORE

So, the news you've been waiting all weekend to hear ...

- My teammates and I did not make it past the first round of auditions for VH1's World Series of Pop Culture, unfortunately. I can't really go into the details of the audition (legally), but I'll say that the opening round proved to be very tough even for me and my crack team of pop culture experts. I enjoyed the experience of going in on Friday and putting my knowledge to the test, and it was fun in a kind of geeky way when certain subjects came up that I was uniquely familiar with ... although there were also moments of frustration, when other subjects came up, which I found myself totally at a loss with. Like I said though, it was a fun time, and I guess my 15 minutes of gameshow fame and fortune will have to wait. Oh well. Team Camp Anawana could a' been a contender, I tell ya's.


- Just some quick thoughts from the weekend as I caught up with Smallville and The OC.

SMALLVILLE had a pretty mediocre episode on Thursday, I have to say. It seemed like a ripoff of about 5 thousand similar but better-told "alternate universe where everything you thought you knew is turned on it head" type episodes of other series. The inclusion of J'onn J'ones was kind of cool, I guess, though he didn't do much except for act as the stereotypical guiding voice for Clark. Overall, I just felt like the whole episode was pretty pointless, and the alternate reality that was presented was not even particularly interesting. The writers should have taken a course in Alan Moore 101 and read "For The Man Who Has Everything" for the end-all be-all tale of Clark Kent in an imaginary, alternate reality.

My Grade: C+

THE OC meanwhile had another kind-of-entertaining episode that seemed to be mostly treading water until the series finale. This show has burned through so many plotlines that all of the big revelations just seem pretty dull at this point. Kirsten is pregant? Unless the baby is Jimmy Cooper's, not all that interesting. Taylor is crazy? There's a newsflash. Julie Cooper had a secret relationship with Ryan's father? Five episodes ago called and wants its subplot back. At least they finally put an end to the Che character, who had long ago worn out his welcome. Was Summer even in this episode? She's been so boring lately that I didn't even notice one way or the other. The surprise savior of this ep was once again Caitlin Cooper, who has somehow morphed into The OC's most interesting character, by far, over the last few episodes - and her interaction with Gordon Bullet is actually consistently pretty amusing. I'm not sure what direction the show is headed for the last few episodes, but at this rate it's clear we're seeing the last signs of life of a show clearly on its deathbed. Still ... I give huge bonus points for the Oldboy reference.

My Grade: B -

- BTW - I'm still in awe of VERONICA MARS being cool enough to do an homage to Y: The Last Man. Anyone else out there reading this like Y? If you've never read it, please check it out immediately.

- Have not yet seen The Simpsons or King of the Hill from Sunday, as me and the G-Man headed over to the house of some friends of my fellow Camp Anawana team member, Paul L, to watch The Royal Rumble, which is always a great time no matter how crappy the WWE happens to be at the time. Watching the event with like 15 other guys in their decked out bachelor home, complete with vintage Atari arcade cabinets, mounted deer's head, and random crap strewn all over the place was quite the experience, and the jokes were a flyin' at 100 mph the entire night. Line of the night: "Shades of Jesus!"

- Damn, I think 75% of my willpower to get through this slooooowww Monday comes from my anticipation for tonight's Prison Break and 24! Also, George Takai is on Heroes, though that show takes a backseat to the almighty Jack Bauer, who when we last left him was in the midst of choking out his estranged, possibly evil brother with a plastic grocery bag. To quote Ron Simmons: "Damn!"


- Caught a few flicks this weekend. One was SMOKING ACES, which I saw at a free Universal screening. The other was NOTES ON A SCANDAL, which I had been curious about due to its Oscar recognition and intriguing premise. So ...


- Smoking Aces reminds me of a mid to late 90's Playstation game done as a movie. In the end, the whole thing is kind of pointless. But as a sugar-coated, over-the-top, acid-fueled adrenaline rush on speed, the movie does a pretty good job of being entertainingly sick and twisted.

The basic premise is simply that a strung out Vegas magician turned wannabe mobster - Buddy "Aces" Israel (played with glossy eyes by Jeremy Piven) is turning snitch on his mob pals once he gets into things too heavy. In retaliation, the mob puts a hit out on him, which results in several gangs of comic book-ish assassins-for-hire to go out gunning for Aces, even as two dogged FBI agents (Ryan Reynolds doing a pretty decent job, and Ray Liotta in vintage toughguy form) try to get to him first.

The best part of the movie is simply being introduced to all the crazy, sordid characters who want to cash in on the bounty hanging over Aces' head. Sassy gangsta girls sporting rocket launchers and leather catsuits - one of whom is played by Alicia Keyes? Check. Neo-Nazi inbred punk-rock anarchists carrying welding kits and chainsaws? Check. Creepy, Hannibal Lechter-meets-Gollum master of disguise? Check. Blue Collar bail bondsmen, in over their heads, including an in-his-element Ben Affleck? Check. A drugged-out of his mind, furry-fetish informant played with hilarity by Jason Bateman? And ... check. I haven't seen such an entertainingly grotesque collection of morally bankrupt sadists since I first popped a copy of Twisted Metal 2 into my PS1 circa 1997.

When the movie revels in its over-the-top, darkly humourous extravagance, I really enjoyed it. These characters are all so crazy that the uber violence on screen takes on a nihilistic videogame quality. And the humor can actually be pretty sharp at times to boot. When the movie falters is when it turns serious on us and suddenly asks us to be emotionally invested in the characters. Nowhere is this more clear than during the overly long ending sequence, in which we are supposed to share in Ryan Reynold's agony over the manipulation he's been the subject of, but instead the whole thing comes off as kind of lame. Most of the big twists in the plot are pretty obvious from the get-go. Like I said, the movie falters when it tries for straight drama. But man, does it blow up stuff good. If you're in the mood for some Guy Richie-style slickness matched with Tarantino-esque grittiiness, check this one out. Just don't expect much substance to go along with your pseudo-sapphic catsuited bounty hunters-with-attitude.

My Grade: B

And now for something completely different ...


- I sometimes am skeptical when an actress like Judi Dench gets a ton of critical acclaim for her latest bit of masterpiece theater. I mean, we KNOW she can act - but is she simply spinning the wheels or really doing something new and different? Something to make us sit up and really take notice, not just nod and say "yeah, she's pretty good." Well, this to me was a true tour de force from Judi Dench. This wasn't her playing a matronly mentor or a prim and proper lady. This was Judi Dench as a true snake in the grass - equal parts Humbert Humbert, Hannibal Lechter, and every creepy old school teacher you ever had nightmares about. Like I said, everyone knew Judi Dench was good, but to be cheesy for a second, I didn't know she could be this bad (commence eye-rolling now).

But about the movie - this is just a well-told, amazingly-acted story that is very much worth checking out. It would have been a perfect fit for the curriculum in the British film classes I took at BU London, because it deals with the classic British themes of repression and what is and isn't proper. The entire movie has a very careful air of repression, and when things do finally explode, the drama is all the more powerful because we're dealing with characters who mask their true selves and live lives of repressed desire and longing. Of course, mention also has to be made of Cate Blanchette, probably one of the three or four best actresses out there right now, who does a great job as a woman similarly trapped as compared to Judi Dench, but, intriguingly, more apt to act on her desires (in this case, turning her back on her family in order to have an affair with a 15 ear old student). Meanwhile, Dench cannot act on her desires, and therefore instead becomes a cunning manipulator - what she cannot have she will at least control and hold power over - and in doing so she tranforms from a likable, kindly woman into a loose-cannon predator.

I felt like one or two scenes in the movie were slightly over the top, and a few characters a bit underdeveloped (though Bill Nighhy (sp?) was great as Blanchette's happy-go-lucky husband). But overall, I would rank this memorable, affecting, and at times downright creepy film with some of the top movies of 2006, and definitely feel that Dench and Blanchette's Oscar nods are well deserved.

My Grade: A-

Alright, I am out. Back tommorow, time permiting, with an adrenaline-soaked 24 Rant of Doom.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower and Alpha Dog Reviewed!

- ALPHA DOG Review:

This is one of the first movies I've seen in a while that I really actively disliked. But, even though I had a pretty low opinion of it, I have to admit I was pretty entertained throughout, simply because the ironic entertainment value of some of the more over-the-top scenes and ridiculous "gangsta" dialogue was enough to keep me laughing and smiling for much of the film. Scarily enough though, the movie - about a group of wannabe thug drug-dealers who get in over their heads when they kidnap the younger brother of a guy who owes them money ... it's based on a true story, one in which the trial is actually ongoing right now. That to me is really depressing, because just about every character in this movie is seemingly mildly retarded. It's not just that the gang's kidnapping plot is utterly ludicrous and essentially pointless - practically guaranteed to end up with them doing jailtime - but it's just the way these characters are portrayed, as brainless, bigoted, ignorant idiots, that makes this movie so off-putting.

The first thing that I really hated about this movie was the writing and dialogue. Basically, every line reeks of lazy, wannabe-badass amateur hour. Most of the dialogue consists of some mix of obscenities, slurs, and misogynist crap that alternates between offensive and unintentionally hilarious. Look, profanity-laced dialogue can be written in an amazing, artful way. Look at The Big Lebowski, Glengary Glenn Ross, Pulp Fiction, Hustle and Flow ... writers like the Cohens and Mamet know how to make obscenity into art. Alpha Dog's attempt to capture how these overprivileged criminals talk just made me shudder. I know that somewhere, somehow, there are probably some moronic kids who actually talk like the people in this movie, but everything just comes off as over the top and ineffective. Profanity has never been more boring and bland than in this movie.

And the weakness of the script is a shame, because there's actually a lot of talent in the young cast. Before seeing Alpha Dog, people like Emil Hirsch, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried, and even Justin Timberlake stuck out as some of the most promising young talents in Hollywood. After seeing Alpha Dog, I feel like these guys are going to have to work hard to overcome the B-movie stain that this movie now puts on their resumes. On the other hand, it's a credit to those guys that their talent and charisma shines through despite everything else, and its on these actors' shoulders that the movie is basically carried. Which is slightly surprising, as some big names like Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone show up as well. Willis is basically a waste here, playing a strung-out drug-dealing dad to Hirsch's Johnny Trulove, and Stone ... all I can say is: yikes! I don't know what happened here, but Stone is just a trainwreck, in one scene yelling at her troubled stepson Jake while oddly pinching his face over and over again, in another scene she is done up in fat makeup, sobbing and gesticulating wildly, looking like a reject monster from Universal's horror vaults.

Similarly, the movie is just ALL OVER THE PLACE. One bar-fight scene inexplicably turns into a kung-fu fight out of Enter the Dragon. Every charater in the movie is tattooed from head to toe, sporting all kinds of weird body-art, including Jake, who is supposedly Jewish despite looking like a neo-nazi (and constantly derided as "kike" by Johnny and his gang), who sports an array of Hebrew tattoos in addition to of all things a swastika! Whaaaat? At times, the director attempts pseudo-artsy shots that come off as totally hack-ish as well. When Johnny feels like the walls are closing in around him, we get a none too subtle shot of ... the walls closing in around him.

In the end, I semi-enjoyed this movie as a piece of B-movie trash, but the more I thought about it the more it annoyed me. The movie never really succeeds at making any kind of point, and in the end almost glamorized the lifestyle of its reprehensible main characters. I mean, they kidnap a kid, sure, but they give him drugs and hook him up with two teenaged bombshells for some coed naked Marco Polo action. It just pains me to think that some stupid teenagers might see this movie and pattern themselves on the characters in it, since for all its overt over-the-topness, the movie is obviously trying to be "real," but failing miserably.

I'd avoid this movie, unless it's one of those late-at-night, let's-get-some-friends-together-and-laugh-at-its-hilarious-awfulness type of situations (don't get me wrong, there is plenty of comedic value here). Or, if you're just a really big Amanda Seyfried or Olivia Wilde fan, in which case I'd still recommend waiting for the DVD.

My Grade: D


- Ya gotta love Zhang Yimou, the action-movie wunderkind behind movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. No other director is so adept at creating visually striking sets and scenes that just seem to bleed off the screen with color and intensity. That, and the guy can stage one heck of a fight scene.

Golden Flower is just as visually amazing as Daggers and Hero, if not more so. The color gold permeates every inch of the movie - a symbolic representaiton of the overflowing wealth and decadence of the Chinese empire that is portrayed. With flair and style, Yimou presents a Shakespearian family drama, with plenty of melodramatic conflict, betrayal, and political maneuvering. While the tale can lag at times, as the action reall doesn't pick up until the end, the movie is held together by the iconic presences of Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li - two of Asia's best and most reliable stars. Chow in this movie is just badass - he is an Emperor who can go from ethereally calm to sadistically violent at the flip of a switch - who is in many ways wicked yet somehow garners our sympathies as his carefully preserved family begins to self-destruct around him. Similarly, Gong Li is a very difficult character top pinpoint - an Empress who is clearly the victim in many ways, but also a cunning manipulator with dangerous ambition. The two veteran actors make even the slow portions of the film eminantly watchable. Still though, the movie does tend to veer off into a number of side plots that don't seem to get a full explanation, and things do often seem to get confusing to the point of being hard to follow (on second thought, part of that may be due to the particularly, um, chatty crowd I watched the movie with ...). Despite its visuals, plot-wise, I don't think this stacks up to House of Flying Daggers and especially to Hero.

But hey, it's amazing to look at, features some epic battles, NINJAS~!, and a lot of other, um, visual treats (Gong Li fans, this is your movie ...). Definitely worth checking out on the biggest screen possible and getting caught up in a world of warring emperors, golden decadence, and classic, epic Asian melodrama that you just know is gonna end with at least a few poor souls deciding that a swift sword-shot through the heart is the only way to end their unbearable earthly suffering, Kabuki-style. Not the masterpiece that Hero is, but another credit to Zhang Yimou's ability to dazzle.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

24 - Season 6! Stone Cold Jack Bauer Shaves, Kills, Cries, and Kills Again!

Well, two nights and 4 hours later, the dust has finally settled and 24 hath returned to kick ass like only it can. My thoughts are these:

Overall, a well-done, suitably intense, emotionally involving, action-packed premiere that has me pumped for the season ahead. While the broad strokes of this season are instantly familar to any 24 afficianado, they still managed to jam-pack each episode with plenty of classic Holy-$%&# moments to deliver the epic that 24 fans have come to expect from a season premiere. Heavy SPOILER warning ahead for those who Tivoed, downloaded from iTunes, or are rushing out to Walmart to buy all 4 episodes on DVD for a low, low price ...

So yeah, some highlights:

- Jesus Christ Bauer shaves, changes, eats, back to normal in like 2 minutes after two years in a Chinese prison camp.
- Jack going LOST BOYS on that one terrorist = instant classic Jack kill.
- Jack mule-kicking the suicide bomber through the subway glass window
- KNIFE through kneecap = ouch.
- "It's not Ahmed, it's ACH-MEHT!" ... lol
- "Don't get up!"
- "Drop the coffee!"
- Meghan Gallagher! Ms. Millenium back on TV, no stranger to angsty family drama and kidnappings, though her presence made me realize how awesome Lance Henrikson would be on this show.
- Suburban dad unexpectedly lets out his inner id. Should have just called the police though.
- Jack goes emo on us.
- NUKE. So long, Valencia. You will be missed (...?...).

Now, I will say that I found the premiere to be a BIT underwhelming in some areas, especially compared to last season's AMAZING opener. First, the biggie ... RIP to CTU's bulldozer, the one and only Curtis Manning. In some ways, Curtis' death was a shocking, intense scene, no doubt. But I felt that, in the end, the whole confrontation was forced and rushed. At least give Curtis, a guy whose thus far always been portrayed as a stoic, rather emotionless ass-kicking machine, some time to build up to going krazay on us. For me, his actions were way too sudden to have much impact or convincingness, and his death just seemed done for shock value and as a convenient means of messing with Jack's head until the nuke gave him back his sense of purpose. Don't get me wrong, the Curtis-Jack shootout was a hell of a scene ... but if it had been given a better build-up, it could have been a lot better with much more weight behind it.

As for the nuke going off, well on one hand it's pretty huge and crazy - I mean, a nuke goes off just outside of LA. So if the show REALLY goes through with the ramifications of this, it should be great. But I worry that 24 has been down this road before as recently as season 4 with the multiple nuclear power plants all set to explode - I hope that this plotline takes things in a different direction rather than just retreading that same ground. Another thematic retread of sorts is the down-and-out Bauer. Already in the span of four hours, we've seen Jack go from just having spent two years without speaking in a prison camp to getting stabbed in a nerve cluster in his shoulder to being back to kicking ass like usual with only a moment of broken-down sobbing, and even THAT was only after he was forced to deliver a kill-shot to one of his few remaining friends in the world. I mean, at that point, having a minor breakdown has to be pretty much expected. It reminds me a little (or a lot) of Season 3, with Jack-as-Heroin-addict, where on occasion we'd be reminded of his debilitating addiction, but mostly he just kicked ass like normal. I just feel like the writers, if they're going to introduce a hurdle for the character in the beginning of the season, why not stick with it, thus making Jack's eventual return to his usual level of gravitas-infused badassery all the more dramatic? I mean, we've already seen him kill a man by biting his neck vampire-style. How do you top THAT?

So that's my word of weariness regarding the premiere. The season could still go in any number of promising directions though, and we haven't even checked in yet with Charles and Martha Logan yet, and key players like Mike Novick, Kim Bauer, Audrey Raines, Heller, and AARON PIERCE are conspicuous by their absences. The preview shown last night has me psyched though, with the return of the Blue Tooth Mafia for one thing - one of my favorite aspects of the 24 universe is that these terroristp lots are never as straightforward as they seem, and more often than not it's our own government (or the secret illuminati groups controlling the government) that pull the strings.

Also, I really liked Kal Penn (aka KUMAR) here. Great job with his role, though it's odd that the whole "domestic family in crazy terrorist situation" storyline seems to have run its course so quickly, as I actually liked all the players involved. I mean, Kal Penn could have been the next Behhhhhhhroooooz, had he not been GUNNED DOWN by CTU. Also, this villain guy Fayed is pretty good and suitably EVIL. Time will tell if he joins the ranks of classic 24 baddies like Victor Drazen and Ramon Salazer and Christopher Henderson, but so far he's pretty sweet.

Wayne Palmer as Prez ... not bad, not bad. What he lacks in GRAVITAS (a word pretty much embodied by the character of David Palmer) he makes up for in terms of being a pretty compelling well-meaning but in-over-his-head RFK-esque figure. My one recurring complaint is how the Presidents on 24 always have one or two at most trusted advisors and that's it. Couldn't we at least see Palmer talking with the one or two other members of his cabinet? As far as Chloe, I learned to love her quirky character, as most of us did, in Season 4's classic machine gun-wielding moments, though I'm not sure about her current role in CTU. I love the actor who plays Morris from his stint on La Femme Nikita, so there is some potential there, though so far none of the other new CTU'ers have the uniqueness of an Edgar. And man, it just isn't the same without good ol' Tony and Michelle. (Zombie Almeda!)

Some final thoughts:

- With Curtis out of commision, who better than AARON PIERCE to become CTU's newest field commander?
- My early plot prediction: The nuke is orchestrated by the Blue Toothers (who will essentially be played as Metal Gear-esque Patriots, trying to reestablish America as the world's only superpower) to destabilize the Palmer regime and sieze control of the US government, in something of a nod to Watchmen. Whatever the US gave to China in exchange for Jack will somehow come back into play at some point.
- Will Jack now be infused with RADIATION POWERS thanks to being in such close proximity to the nuke? Damn, you never wanted to piss off Jack Bauer, but ESPECIALLY not if making him angry transforms him into a giant green hulk.
- Seriously, shouldn't all of LA pretty much be evacuated now? Will 24 be (gasp) forced to take place somewhere else?
- Bill Buchanan's peptalk is classic: "Dammit! We have to do better!"
- Somewhere in 24 heaven, Curtis and Tony are mowing down terrorist scum together while uttering monosyllabic affirmations of each others' accomplishments. "Yeah."

- So yeah, overall ... 24 is back! The premiere had some issues, didn't quite stack up to Season 5 ... but I have a feeling that, with this season, the best is yet to come.

My Grade: B+

Friday, January 12, 2007

Jack Bauer Eats Chumps Like You For Breakfast

- Well, I realize I've kind of been bombarding the blog here with new posts this week. Chalk it up to getting back to work and into a regular routine after taking time off and mostly removed from these here internets. Somehow, I didn't even realize until yesterday that I am headed for a three day weekend, which almost seems excessive at this point but hey, I won't turn it down.

- So basically all I want to say right now is:

I cannot wait for 24 on Sunday. And if you're not watching, I have to ask why have you not yet gotten with the program? For five years now, 24 has, even in its lesser seasons, been the best show on TV. It's not so much that each and every episode in and of itself is genious, more so that 24 has revolutionized serial TV storytelling so that the very core of the show is so intense, so dramtic, so big, that each episode is practically an event all its own.

I'm proud to say that I am no 24 bandwagoner either. I began watching on Day 1, episode 1, because I was psyched for the show - the follow up actioner from the producers of the underrated La Femme Nikita series. And man, I still remember how blown away I was by that initial pilot episode, sophomore year of college, as some friends and I sat huddled around our dorm room TV. 24 was THE show to watch for the rest of college, and me and my fellow unofficial CTU agents (Chris mostly, but Aksel, Erica, and a few others became bigtime fans as well) never missed an episode. Just to give you an idea of my hardcore 24 love, I downloaded every episode from the net while spending a semester in England as soon as I could following the American air dates. I remember Chris visiting in London from Oxford, as we caught up on a bunch of episodes on my laptop.

So many thrilling moments have helped make 24 the show that it is. I won't mention them here for the sake of not spoiling those who have yet to catch up. Because if you're not yet a devout 24 viewer, well, what are you waiting for?

It's going to be real, real interesting to see how the head to head battle between 24 and Heroes plays out at 9 pm on Mondays. Heroes has been the breakout drama of the new fall season, but the thing with 24 is that a.) for any fan of 24, it is THE must-watch show of the week, no questions asked, and b.) thanks to hugely popular DVD's and ever-growing heaps of positive buzz, 24 has, remarkably, grown each year from a modestly successful cult-fave into one of FOX's top franchises. It will be interesting to see how this affects Heroes, and, if it does, to see if NBC yields at all or continues pitting Heroes against the Jack Bauer Hour of Power.

Alright, have a good weekend. Rest easy that we no longer need to rely on some wannabe guys with names like James Bond or Ethan Hunt or, dammit all, Codename: The Cleaner to save the world for us. This Sunday, Jack Bauer shows those wannabes how it's done, and the gravitas will be a'flowin'.

Can't wait to see Zombie Almeda get some sweet revenge on a cybernetically enhanced Christopher Henderson. That IS what's going to happen ... right?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

ADRIIIIAAAAAAAAN! Finally - my Rocky Balboa review!


I don't think I need to go into too much detail on this one, suffice to say that after a very lackluster Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone did the seemingly impossible with this sixth installment and made arguably the best Rocky movie since the original. Rocky Balboa is just a great, great movie. Not great in the sense of being an artistic or technical masterpiece, but legitimately great in that it's a simple, straightforard movie that can be watched over and over again. This one does everything a Rocky movie is supposed to - it inspires you, it gives you goosebumps, it gets you invested in the characters - Rocky especially, and it will have you fighting the urge to stand up and cheer as you watch. I saw many movies this past year with better scripts, saw many films with better acting, but few, if any, that left me feeling like I did after watching Rocky Balboa - happy, excited, pumped-up, and yes, even a little inspired.

Basically, Rocky Balboa is so good because it does away with much of the cartoonish action-movie fluff that has defined the franchise since Rocky III. Instead, Stallone creates a movie that acts as a true parallel and bookend to the original Rocky movie. As in the first movie, Rocky goes back to being a true underdog, and the movie isn't so much about the glitz and glamour of the big fight, but about what that fight represents, about how it is one last shot for a man to prove a point to the world. Sure, this is still a boxing movie, but like the original, this is at its heart a character drama.

And man, I give insane amounts of credit to Stallone. I'll be honest, up until recently, I never thought all that much of him as an actor or as a creative force in Hollywood. But as I read his series of fan Q & A's on Aint It Cool News, in the weeks leading up to this movie's release, I was just totally blown away by Stallone's character and his willingness to be humble about his career and honest and appreciative to his fans. After seeing the movie, I was even more impressed with the man, because screw the haters, Stallone knocks this one out of the park, delivering, I'd say, his best acting performance to date. As always, Sly easily slips into the Rocky character, and it's fun as ever to be reunited with an old friend with regards to Rocky - certainly one of the great film heroes of our time. But contrast his performance here to that of Rocky V, which also cast Rocky as an aging, past-his-prime guy trying to transition into a new phase of his life. While that movie had everything feeling forced and rarely ringing true, Rocky Balboa just feels right from the get-go. This is, finally, the real Rocky that we know and love, and Stallone mixes humor and a surprising amount of dramatic gravitas into his performance here. Maybe you just have to be a sucker for this stuff like I am, but when Rocky emotionally lectures his son about not letting others tell you what you can and can't do, me and my brother just looked at each other in the theater, both of us thinking: "daaaaaaaaaaaamn!"

Part of the reason this movie resonates so much, I think, is that to me it perfectly takes on one of the most appealing themes in drama - the old fighter getting one last shot to reclaim his former glory. For some reason, in this day and age we're living in, it's an especially powerful idea. Most action films today are dominated by nearly androgynous, metrosexual boys playing men. Rather than Stallone, Arnold, and Ford we have Orlando Bloom, DiCaprio, and Ledger. Nothing against those guys, but it makes you wonder - where have the real-deal action heroes gone? Well, here he is, baby. The real-deal, the Italian Stallion, Rocky F'n Balboa - back for one mo' round to show the young punks how it's done. He's old, he's flabby, he's past his prime, but dammit all, don't count him out yet. Sure, in real life such a comeback might be fantasy - but this is the movies, and Stallone does a hell of a job of convincing us that Rocky, as we suspect, has no chance in hell of winning his last fight. But then the magic happens, and Rocky digs down deep, and unless you are the world's biggest cynic you'll be on your feet believing that on any given day one man can beat another and by God this might just be Rocky's day.

But again, this movie isn't even so much about the fight as it is the idea - the idea that a man can have a second act in life, but only once he's excorcised the demons of his first. As we see Rocky roaming his old Philadelphia haunts, trying to make human connection like an old ghost, we see the loneliness and disconnectedness of a once great man, and we wonder how the Champ could have fallen so far (simple - the end of his boxing career and the death of his beloved Adrian).

Sure, this is a movie that can be picked apart, overanalyzed, and looked at through a cynical, critical eye. There's some spotty acting here and there (our old friend Milo V of Heroes fame, in particular, is a little adrift as Rocky's put-upon young adult son). There's some odd pacing at times as well, and Rocky's opponent, while servicable as a foil for our hero, is never all that interesting of a character. But what counts here is that Rocky Balboa perfectly revives the scrappy, underdog spirit of the original. Plain and simple, it works, and I found myself loving this movie for its pure sense of hope and spirit. Stallone has said this is it for Rocky, and I'm glad he got a chance to make such a classy finale for a franchise that deserved to go out with a bang.

My Grade: A -

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Advanced Review of Verhoeven's BLACK BOOK


- To the uninitiated, it often comes off as weird when I say that one of my favorite movies is Robocop. I mean, it's a movie about a cybernetic policeman, how good could it be, right? Well, the movie kicks ass, and in large part that is due to the crazy sensibilities of director and Dutch homeland hero, Paul Verhoeven - if nothing else, certainly one of the most interesting forces in modern movies.

Verhoeven, basically, seems to have little to no internal sensor that tells him when something is too over the top, cheesy, or unintentionally funny. He has a unique European sensibility that seems to imbue every movie he makes with over-the-top, raw, and gratuitous levels of sex and violence, an almost perverse sense of black humor, and in spite all of that, a remarkable sense of dramatic weight and self-seriousness that no matter how absurd the situation, never winks at the audience or indulges in any sense of irony or self-awareness. In some cases, Verhoeven uses this unique aesthetic to elevate what would, in other hands, be B-movie trash into remarkably fun, witty, entertaining, and even great drama. You see this in Robocop, where the ultra-violent tale of a robotic cop blasting his way through urban decay somehow becomes, simultaneously, a kickass action movie and a near-genious commentary / satire on 1980's corporate greed and excess. To a lesser extent, this same elevation of B-movie material into violent, darkly humourous art occurs in Verhoeven flicks like Total Recall and Starship Troopers, though to me neither reaches the sheer awesomeness of Robocop. But in other cases, the obvious one being Showgirls, and to some degree Basic Instinct, Verhoeven's total lack of self-aware self-censorship results in glorious and total disaster. But there's no denying that even when he fails, the man does so in quite spectacular fashion.

So it was with great curiousity that I went to a free screening of Verhoeven's latest, Black Book (also known as Zwartboek). The movie was a World War II epic, in Dutch, a huge hit overseas in 2006, and already controversial in some circles for its graphic depiction of a Jewish woman's affair with a Nazi officer in 1940's Holland. All this from the genious / madman behind Robocop / Showgirls. So yeah, I was chomping at the bit to see this one, folks. And man, as far as being a unique kind of film curiosity, this one definitely did not disappoint.

How to describe Black Book? Honestly, I am almost at a loss. I guess I'd say this: imagine a sweeping, epic, classically-made World War II epic from the golden age of Hollywood. Now imagine a 1980's era, hardcore action movie filled with graphic violence, gratuitous nudity, and all kinds of moral ambiguity and characters painted in shades of grey. Now mash-up the two, and we have Black Book. Well, kind of ...

On one hand, I recognized many touches that were trademark Verhoeven in Black Book - highly sexualized female characters, lots of machine gun fights in which we see people riddled with bullet holes, deviant villains, and strong themes of revenge, corruption, and eye-for-an-eye morality. On the other hand, this was in many ways completely different from other Verhoeven movies I've seen. Plot-wise, it was an epic tale filled with twists and turns, betrayals and double crosses straight out of a vintage war movie. In terms of cinematography, this movie looked pretty spectacular - filled with vivid depicitons of the Dutch countryside, of the wartime-era city streets, and numerous other amazingly-realized settings. This movie spectacularly succeeds in transporting one back to the final days of WWII - not in a cheesy, stylized Hollywood fashion, but with a rarely seen air of authenticity helped by the fact that this film was made abroad and outside of the American studio system. I also liked the way this film handled language and subtitles - most of the movie is in Dutch, but the characters speak a number of different languages throughout accroding to what they might actually be speaking in a given situation. Throughout the movie we hear Dutch, English, Hebrew, and German, and the conversations flow naturally thoughout. As you may be starting to realize, this is far from your typical film ...

To outline the plot / premise: Black Book deals with Rachel Steinn, an attractive Jewish girl who goes into hiding in 1940's Holland, tucked away with a Christian family to avoid capture by the Gestapo. We first meet Rachel in 1956, where she lives in Israel on a Kibbutz, leading a quiet, happy life as a school teacher. But most of the film takes place in 1944, as Rachel arranges for transport out of Holland and into liberated territory, only for her ship to be intercepted by Nazis. Rachel escapes, and is taken in by a group of underground Dutch resistance fighters, who recruit her to their cause. After one of the fighters is kidnapped by the SS, Rachel dies her hair blonde and is sent on a spy mission - she is to infiltrate the local Nazi occupying regime by seducing its leading captain, thereby gaining access and information that will help free the prisoners being held in the compound.

This sounds like the setup for a conventional spy / wartime drama, but Verhoeven sets Black Book apart by creating a very dark, bleak, nihilistic picture of the war where nearly every character is morally corrupt. Things start to take a turn for the offbeat when Rachel's affections for her targeted Nazi officer go from merely an act to legitimate, as depicted in some pretty grpahic scenes. So yeah - this movie will probably generate (and already has generated) a good deal of controversy, because not only does Rachel - a spunky sexpot of a Jewish girl, agree without hesitation to sleep with a Nazi for the good of the resistance, but it turns out that this particular Nazi captain is portrayed as somewhat sympathetic. Sure, he's probably responsible for any number of atrocities, but his family was killed by British bombs, and he fights to arrange peaceful compromises with the resistance fighters rather than use violence as a first resort. Now you can start to see how this movie veers so far away from the black and white, good vs. evil style that is typical of most WWII movies. Nearly every character is some shade of shady.

By the way, the acting in this movie, even with its distinctly European flair, is universally great, and special mention has to be made of Carice Van Houten (no relation to Milhouse), in the lead role of Rachel, who is simply great here - I think she easily has what it takes to be an international star.

As much of an oddity as this movie was in some ways, don't get me wrong - I was totally entertained by it fro mstart to finish. In another director's hands this might have been a classically-told, traditional WWII-era saga that could have been a bit less crazy and over the top, but also probably would have been a lot less entertaining. This movie has many moments that are absurd when you stop to think about them, but it also has many great, memorable scenes that while they may be a far cry from what we've come to expect in a typical Hollywood period piece, their unrestrained, unsanitized rawness makes them all the more memorable. For example - one scene where Rachel, posing as a gentile and working a deskjob at German HQ in Holland, sings and entertains a gathering of Nazi troops in honor of Hitler's birthday, while being serenaded by the very same Nazi officer who ordered the execution of her entire family - a setup for a memorable scene if ever there was one. Subtle - no, but effective and memorable. On the other hand, the ending coda, similar in theme to the ending of Steven Spielberg's Munich, is in total contrast to that movie in its over-the-top heavy-handedness. But still, more often than not, Black Book draws you in and entertains despite being one of the most bleak movies I've seen.

So, if you've ever been curious how the director of Robocop and Basic Instinct would make a twisting, sweeping epic about a Jewish girl's journey into the heart of the Nazi regime in the final days of World War II (I know I was ...), well you've GOT to see this movie. Afterwards, you may not be sure exactly what to make of the gloriously unsubtle, memorably unconventional film you've just seen, but trust me, you'll probably be glad you saw it.

My Grade: A -

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Back in LA - Children of Men and lots MORE

- So I'm back in LA after a very restful and relaxing time spent in CT over the last week ten days or so. Overall it was an excellent getaway. I had a fun New Years' spent in White Plains, NY, with Erica and her friends, saw a few other friends in CT, and caught up with family for much "quality time." I watched many a movie, and spent many hours engrossed in vicious one-one-one virtual combat with my brother. Yes, Matt and I hit up our usual hot spots like Luna's Pizza, and spent much time driving around, endlessly flipping the car radio station in hopes of stumbling across a good song on CT's terrible selection of stations. Doctors and dentists were seen, much sleeping was done (not sure if I ever really got off of West Coast time), and many meals were eaten at a cornucopia of Southern New England's finest eateries (Bloomfield, CT: proud home of a Ruby Tuesdays). Yes, I hit up the unparalleled pizza of Bertuccis and sampled a fribble or two at Friendly's, and even downed some pasta at Vinny T's. Yes, Manchester CT is practically mini-Boston now, with not only its own location of the famous Beantown Italian eatery, but the Buckland Hills mall is now home to a Newbury Comics! While the Buckland Newbury didn't quite have the same authentic feel or ridiculous selection of music, DVD's, and comics as in Boston, the same vague smell of used CD's laced with pot smoke still permeated the joint. Good ol' Newbury comics - I look forward to the day when there's one in every mall across America.

Some samplings of some DVD's I sampled while in CT:

X-Men 3 - watched with Matt and my dad as my dad had not yet seen it - still enjoyed it very much, Ian McKellan rules

V For Vendetta - man, this should probably have been higher on my Best of 2006 list - I actually love this movie more after a second viewing - Remember, remember!

Punch Drunk Love - I still really like this movie and think Adam Sandler is awesome in it, though my brother hated it for some reason

Bubba Ho-Tepp - friggin' awesome Bruce Campell B-movie with some of the funniest lines I've heard in any movie in a while ... "they crap soul residue," "Mr. Haaf!" -- my brother and I repeated these lines all throughout the week

Black Samurai - pretty terrible blaxploitation movie starring Jim Kelly, with some amusing villains and some funky tunes - good for some laughs

The Untouchables - wow, what an uneven movie - some of the sequences (the baby on the steps action scene in particular) are ridiculously awesome, but the movie constantly veers from hardcore gangster flick to cartoonish actioner ... still, I can see why some consider it a classic

Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 3 - the dead guy's shirt ep is hilarious, this show is great - I could easily watch a whole season in one sitting if I had the time

- Anyways, like I said, overall I had an excellent vacation and despite an all-day, at times turbulent flight back to Burbank yesterday, I feel pretty recharged and ready to get back to business.


- So long to THE OC. The announcement of the show's cancellation is no big surprise when looked at objectively, but at the same time, the show was SUCH a breakout hit when it first premiered, it's amazing to see how far it's fallen, both in popularity and quality. I watched Thursday night's episode and enjoyed a few scenes here and there, but overall it felt like watching a show on its last legs. Still, I hope that the show can pull itself together for a great final string of episodes. I'd love to see Julie Cooper reemerge as an out and out villain and go out in a blaze of glory, to give the show some real oomph before it goes.

- I had been looking forward to the KNIGHTS of PROSPERITY, but was pretty disappointed with what I saw last week. Donal Logue is reliably great, but the rest of the cast and the characters they play are completely cartoonish, and not in a good way. The jokes are occasionally semi-funny, but feel like the kind of humor that a few high schoolers could come up with after watching a few episodes of Married With Children or something. Just a very thin premise barely held together by totally one-dimensional and not particularly funny characters. I may sample one more episode, but this was a big letdown.

My Grade: C

- THE SIMPSONS was almost decent on Sunday, but was worth watching for a few laugh out loud jokes that had my brother and I cracking up, notably Moe, Lenny, and Carl trying to decide if they should walk outside in the rain to get to their car. Otherwise, most of the ep fell flat, and was yet another sign that the Simpsons movie may be in some serious trouble.

My Grade: C

- THE OFFICE was okay on Thursday, but overall I have to say it was probably the weakest ep of the season thus far. The whole Michael-Jan romance really stretched credibility and signaled a pretty jarring departure for Jan's character. I also don't really like the core idea of this woman helplessly falling for Michael - to me it is just really getting away from the fact that he is supposed to be a kind of pathetic, lonely loser. Also, the Jim-Pam drama was layed on waaay too thick this week. A whole scene of Pam crying? The Office is at its best when drama is played out through little moments - quick facial expressions, awkward glances, etc. I wish the show would stick to that. Anyways, there were still plenty of funny moments, and Steve Carell had some hilarious lines ("Sex!"). I'm just nervous that some this was an ep that relied way too much on tampering with the show's premise and characters rather than sticking to what works.

My Grade: B


- I've heard all kinds of reaction to this movie, from people who hated it to those who have deemed it the top film of 2006. I was expecting to fall more towards the latter camp, as I have become a huge Clive Owen fan since his great work in Sin City and Inside Man, and in general am a big fan of REAL science-fiction - you know, not the kind that is basically a fairy-tale or cowboy shoot 'em-up set in outer space, but the kind that has its feet firmly planted in reality. And really, when was the last really good hard science fiction film? And no, I Robot, despite being based on an Asimov story, doesn't count, as the transition from words to film in that case was a perfect illustration of the difference between science-fiction and "sci-fi." So I was really looking forward to Children of Men, as it seemed to be a return to a style of movie that hadn't been seen in a while - something grounded in reality with a premise that makes you think "what if?"

And it's no big mystery to me why this film is garnering such rabid praise from certain contingents. It has to its credit a few amazing performances, as well as some of the most remarkable cinematography in a movie in years. It is also, as I mentioned, one of the few real, serious, speculative fiction movies in a long while - one whose premise is more grounded in human drama and today's headlines than in CGI aliens or gigantic explosions. Before I start on about what I DIDN'T like, let me highlight some of the reasons why this is a movie well worth seeing:

- The Premise: Children of Men hinges on a disturbingly interesting idea - that sometime in the near future, women stop having babies, and in turn the human race is slowly but surely heading towards extinction. While the movie never fully exploits the potential of this tantalizing idea, there are numerous concepts that DO serve to paint a strikingly realistic depiction of a world headed toward oblivion. Everything feels right here, every detail paints a convincing portrait of a fully-realized near-future dystopian England. From the grafitti on the city walls to the everpresent Quietus suicide pill to the realistic timeline that is established, the movie works so well because everything about it feels real and grounded.

- The Performances: Clive Owen is great here as our leading man - even without a fully realized character (the script's fault, not his), Owen does an incredible job of portraying a man who finds purpose in his life even as, initially, he, like everyone else on the doomed planet, is merely counting down towards The End. Similarly, Michael Caine is as good as always here. Finally getting away from the wise mentor role of his last few movies, Caine plays a strung-out, aging hippie who serves as a friend and counterpart to Owen. These two performances really drive the movie, but they are aided by an outstanding supporting cast as well.

- The Look: Director Alfonso Cuaran has done an amazing job of immersing the viewer in his fictional future. As I mentioned, every detail of the film pops with life and authenticity, and the stark and muted colors lend an air of foreboding meloncholy to the visuals. Where Cuaran really distinguishes himself though is with a number of action sequences that are done or at least give the illusion of being done in single-takes, with the camera staying in one postion, bobbing and weaving, as the action occurs around it. The first such scene is a riveting car chase, as Clive Owen, Julianne moore and company try to evade a bunch of maurading rebels. The pinnacle of the film though is a spectacular, lengthy sequence that takes place in a walled-in prison camp for illegal refugees, as government forces descend on the revolting immigrant population. With a full-on war from hell going on all around him, the camera follows Clive Owen as he attempts to navigate the warzone to find and protect his charge - the first baby born in decades. The entire sequence has the immersiveness of a next-gen videogame, and is truly the movie's showpiece.

With all that being said, Children of Men never fully realizes its immense potential. Despite great acting and directing, the movie's plotting leaves a lot to be desired, and I'd be really interested to hear the opinion of someone who was fully satisfied with the final script here, becasue for me, it just didn't get the job done. For one thing, the premise, as great as it is, quickly becomes very muddled. The core of the movie is the idea that women have become unable to have children, but as powerful as this idea is, it soon becomes overshadowed by the tension between the British government and illegal refugees, or Fugees (yep you read that right), who have fled their own failing homelands and sought refuge in England, which still has some semblance of (police-state enforced) order. This is interesting as a subplot, but it takes up a ton of time in the film at the expense of many plot points that never really get addressed. In a movie so grounded in reality, it is pretty frustrating to get so little insight into the hows and whys of the plague of infertility. The specific effects of the problem and its immediate reprecussions are never really addressed - we're never quite sure how things got from Point A to Point B. Also, the movie presents a number of factions that never quite make sense. We are led to believe that the government in this dystopia is corrupt and evil, but we're never really shown why, exactly. The alternatives factions vying for control of the first newborn baby in decades are similarly shady. The band of rebels initially led by Julianne Moore have ambiguous goals and seem to quite the mix of idealists and flat-out thugs.

And finally there is the Human Project - a mysterious group that is supposedly the saviour for all mankind and the only place where the baby will be safe and sound. Just one problem - we never are given any real idea what the Human Project is, what it does, or why it should be trusted above all others. I thought about this ambiguity for a while, and obviously it is intentional and done in the name of creating some grand metaphor for hope and whatnot. But any way you slice it, it only hurts, not helps, the movie, to have one of its main plot points be kept so frustratingly ambiguous. And ...


The ending of the film, almost any way you look at it, is just jarringly disappointing, and drives home the fact that somewhere along the way the film lost track of what it was supposed to be about. Look, I am all for subtle, open-ended plot resolutions when appropriate and done well, but I don't think a single person in the packed theater I saw the film in was thinking "wow, great ending." I mean who DIDN'T want some kind of revelation about what the Human Project was or what it hoped to achieve? What we were left with was a big fat question mark that, had this been a serialized TV show, would have had a "To Be Continued" slapped onto the ending. The ending didn't really leave me with any real profound thoughts or grand revelation, just a big "huh?"


Finally, as I alluded to, much of the characters' motives are basically left up to our imaginations. We never really get why, exactly, Clive Owen is risking life and limb to help out the world's only pregnant woman. Why not, as he first suggested, simply turn her over to the government? As I said, Owen is great and full of twitchy charisma, but his character is, annoyingly, kind of a cipher. Julianne Moore seems moslty wasted as well - her relationship with Clive Owen is never given much spark to it, and she's out of the picture before she makes much, if any, impact.

So yeah, Children of Men = well worth checking out and is a movie that has much to be appreciated. But sorry guys, this isn't the next Blade Runner or anything, and in terms of fiction with similar themes, I'd suggest checking out the superlative Y: The Last Man series of graphic novels. On the other hand, this isn't a movie that can be dismissed, because while it never quite comes together to achieves greatness, many of the elements are there.

My Grade: B+

- Alright, that's all I've got for now. I still need to do a Rocky Balboa review, and I may check out a screening of Paul ("Robocop") Verheiden's latest, Black Book, tonight. Until then ...