Thursday, November 4, 2010

In the Loop

If the recent elections left you a bit frayed at the edges with the non-stop barrage of attack ads, maybe it would help to sit down and enjoy a movie that reminds us that internal government politics are usually not much more mature than the election process. 

To paraphrase a review by Time Out London, In the Loop is the anti-West Wing. Instead of a movie depicting government officials as patriotic civil servants out to improve their nation, it shows them the way most of us probably think of them: as people in nice suits shouting at each other a lot. 

In the Loop is a documentary-style comedy about what goes on behind the scenes of the British and American governments. Simon Foster, a somewhat insignificant British minister, makes a comment on the radio that "war is unforeseeable," in an attempt to avoid commenting on the possibility of the UK going to war. After being chewed out for not following the Prime Minister's line by Malcolm Tucker, the communications chief, Foster goes back on air to try and amend his comment, but instead further increases speculation that the UK may be going to war. The comments are then picked up by the U.S. State Department, and the Brits must travel to America, as everybody tries to manipulate Foster's comments to swing both governments towards or against going to war. 

However, the political commentary sort of gets put on the back burner compared to the volume of foul language used in this film. It's quite possible that nearly every line of this movie is laden with some sort of obscenity. At a running time of 1 hour, 46 minutes, you'd think excessive use of the F-bomb would lose it's punch. It doesn't, and that's probably because it's mixed in with every other insult conceivable and ones you probably would never have thought up on your own. At one point, Love Actually is used as a derogatory term. 

There are a few actors in supporting roles who'd be familiar to most audiences, such as James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan, but Peter Capaldi definitely steals the show as Malcolm Tucker. (He's the one swearing everybody out in the scene above.) Capaldi plays Tucker as a completely unhinged, short-tempered individual, yet a highly quotable one. It's actually quite a shame that the TV series that In the Loop spun off of, The Thick of It, isn't currently available in the US, because Malcolm Tucker is a character you'd definitely want to see more of. Just make sure small children aren't around if you quote his lines. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Subtlety isn't  how you describe most political thrillers. Often they're high tension movies with lots of running, shouting and gunfire. While there is some of that in The Ghost Writer, it's on a somewhat less extravagant scale. It's a movie that plays it's premise so subtly it isn't even clear if there's any sort of political conspiracy afoot or if it is just a tale of a writer who finds himself in a paranoia inducing situation.

The story follows a ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor who lands an assignment to write the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister, Adam Lang, after the previous ghost writer dies, but not before finishing a draft of the manuscript. The manuscript is kept under extreme security, with the current ghost writer only able to review a printed copy kept at a secured house on an island off the coast of New England. Shortly after the writer accepts the assignment, a major scandal erupts in which Adam Lang is accused of war crimes during his tenure as Prime Minister. As the scandal grows, the writer begins to uncover secrets his predecessor uncovered that are potentially more damaging than the war crimes accusations.

The pace of this movie is rather patient, revealing details slowly, building tension as the audience strives to make sense of them. For example, the movie opens with a shot of an SUV on a ferryboat, which doesn't move as all of the cars unload off of the boat, only after we see it towed away do we learn that it's former driver, the first ghost writer, apparently fell overboard. The audience is introduced to characters well before it's apparent what their role to play in the story will be.

The film shifts its focus equally among the various plot points so that the viewer isn't entirely sure what's a red herring and what is proof of a greater conspiracy at work. So, while you're focusing on the war crime scandal looming over the prime minister's head, a little nugget of information about the ghost writer's predecessor will pop up, leaving you unsure of which is more important. It all comes together nicely at the end, pulling enough twists to keep you guessing without resorting to cheap tricks.

I suppose I do have to mention that this is a film by Roman Polanski. While it may be hard for some viewers to put aside Polanski's personal controversies, the man definitely knows how to craft a good piece of cinema. He manages to make the story feel like it's moving along at a brisk pace even when it isn't clear to the audience what direction it's going in.

He also put together a great cast for the film. Ewan McGregor really lets you get inside his character's head, making you understand the motivations of a man who is trying to remain as objective as possible and just get a paycheck while caught in a situation where sides need to be taken. Pierce Brosnan plays the former Prime Minister. As easy as he was to like in the James Bond films, he creates a particularly loathsome character who is unapologetic for what he did during his term in office.

Rounding out the cast are Kim Katrall as the Prime Minister's personal assistant and Olivia Williams as his wife. I especially liked Olivia Williams's performance, as her character is both trying to watch out for Ewan McGregor while also being fed up with the situation she's been put into. This is the first major role I've seen her in, and hopefully she'll start appearing in more leading roles after this.

Overall, this is a movie for somebody looking for a story that straddles the line between political thriller and film noir, especially one that is less about explosions and bullets and more about telling an engaging story.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Fall

First off, I'm going to say that if you at all enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth, you need to see this movie. It isn't as magical a story, but The Fall is a very unique fantasy that is unlike most films you've seen. Also, unlike Pan's Labyrinth, it's in English.

I was rather surprised how little attention this film received. Despite being produced by both David Fincher and Spike Jonze, and getting Roger Ebert's glowing praise, (He described it as a movie you should see simply because it exists,) it failed to make a splash of any sort. It didn't even get so much as an art direction nomination at the Oscars, (perhaps proving theory that an art film released over the summer will go completely unnoticed by the Academy.)

The Fall is a movie about storytelling. It's set in Los Angeles during the early days of cinema. A stunt performer named Roy is confined to a hospital bed after an accident. He befriends a little girl named Alexandria and tells her a strange, anachronistic, epic tale about an Indian, an ex-slave, an explosives expert and Charles Darwin. The four are out on a mission led by a masked bandit to get revenge against a man named Governor Odious. The tale begins as a fun adventure, but as Roy's depression deepens over the possibility of being paralyzed, the story he tells becomes darker and more sinister.

The narrative bounces back and forth between Roy's story and what goes on at the hospital. Alexandria draws from what she sees about the hospital and incorporates it into the tale, casting the patients, visitors and employees in the various roles. I almost wish that the entire focus of the movie was on Roy's tale, because it's such a visual departure from most fantasies, but the tale only works when juxtaposed against Roy's frustration at the events that sent him to the hospital.

The film plays about with the tale as Roy tells it versus how Alexandria imagines it, so the visuals don't always immediately match up with the tale as it's shown to the audience. For example, the Indian, as Roy describes it, is a Native American. He has a squaw who lives inside of a wigwam. However, Alexandria imagines him as an Asian Indian, with a long beard and a turban.

Occasionally, the setting also changes as Roy's description of a scene becomes more detailed, which results in some amazing displays of editing. In one scene the Masked Bandit and his crew are lost in a rocky desert valley. A mystic man takes charge of the situation and shows them the way to a lush green field that clearly was not there before, but was somehow there all along.

Perhaps this film's greatest strength is that the director, who goes by the name Tarsem, used no almost no computer generated imagery. If you look at the trailer, you'll realize just how incredible a feat that is considering how surreal this movie's imagery is. All of the exotic settings were filmed on location. There's actually montage where the characters in the tale are sent all across the world, dashing through places like Cairo and Paris. This meant that Tarsem sent the actors there for single shots lasting barely a second.

When Tarsem uses truly exotic locales, it makes the fantasy elements of the story seem unexpectedly convincing, something you don't get from George Lucas-style cartoon worlds. The deserts, the mazes and cities don't look like places that should really exist in the known world, but whether they do or don't there's not a second where you doubt the characters are really there.

If the visuals of The Fall feel strangely familiar, it might be that you recognize elements from Tarsem's previous work The Cell, also known as that Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez movie from 2000 that looks nothing like what you'd expect a Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez movie to look like today. The Fall is considerably more family friendly than The Cell, so much so that I'm a bit confused by it's R-rating. The swearing is minimal, and there is absolutely no sex at all. I can only assume that the R-rating is for the violence, but again that's minimal. Any blood shed onscreen is completely artful and would never be described as gory. By comparison, I'd be far more hesitant to show a 10 year-old the PG-13 rated The Dark Knight than this movie.

Fans of the show Pushing Daises would also want to check out this movie. Roy the stuntman is played by Lee Pace who Pushing Daises fans will recognize as Ned the pie man. Pace plays a considerably more assertive character in this film than on the show, but is still just as likable, (even when he tries to traumatize the little girl with his story.) His performance in this film is so good that it was a shock to see that he'd wound up as the dad in Marmaduke. After seeing him in The Fall you'll agree he deserves a better role.

Catinca Untaru gives an equally noteworthy performance. She plays Alexandria, the little girl. i suppose you can debate over how much of her performance is her acting ability and how much was just her being a good casting choice. Apparently Catinca learned to speak English as the movie was being filmed, so much of her dialogue is jumbled as she tries to find the right words to say in English. Whether deliberate or a happy accident, her character's struggle to speak English leads to a few great dialogue exchanges as Roy tries to get Alexandria to understand what he's saying.

The Fall has already started to find it's audience among film buffs, so I wouldn't be surprised if in a decade filmmakers start mentioning this as an influence or making sly references to it in their own movies.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Slammin' Salmon

Some filmmakers have earned enough goodwill that even when they make a bad or mediocre movie, it's still something you tell your friends to check out to decide for themselves. In this case, I'm talking about The Slammin' Salmon, from Broken Lizard, the team that brought us Super Troopers and Beer Fest.

I'll be upfront and say that this movie isn't that great. If you're looking for a movie a movie to watch on a night where you have nothing else to do, I'd pass on this one. Instead, save this for a night when you've got some friends over. Crack open a few beers and put this on when the conversation starts winding down. Feel free to talk over it.

As far as the Broken Lizard movies go, this one ranks at the bottom. Yes, I'm including Club Dread (which is actually my favorite, but apparently not well received by the public) and Dukes of Hazard (which actually isn't all that bad if you look at it in the same spirit of humor as their other films.)

With the group's previous movies, the plot was never anything significant. Basically, it was means to get from one drug/alcohol/sex/violent death joke to another. (The opening scene of Club Dread manages to accomplish all four in one go.) The same goes for The Slammin' Salmon, but in this film I think they should have put a bit more effort into the plot, which is apparently inspired by the time spent by the members of Broken Lizard working in the restaurant business.

In this film, Michael Clark Duncan plays a former boxer turned restaurant owner who owns $20,000 to the Japanese mafia, so he tells his manager to get the staff to earn that much money in a single night. The manager tries various tactics before the Champ offers $10,000 to whoever makes the most money, and a beating to whoever makes the least.

There are a lot of bad jokes in this movie, and by a lot, I mean the majority of them. The bulk of them end up being delivered by Michael Clark Duncan. His character is dumb and short tempered, so he'd say something blatantly stupid and threaten somebody with violence when they try to correct him, towards the end they start getting stale.

The same goes for Nuts, the character played by Jay Chandrasekhar (better known as Ramathorne from Super Troopers). He's mentally ill and forgets to take his meds partway through the night. The result is forced wackiness, but I get the sense he was hoping it'd come off as a sort of Captain Jack Sparrow type of crazy.

So why recommend this movie? There's various levels of bad movies. There's Meet the Spartans bad, which thinks it's being funny but is just pointless. There's The Happening bad, which is unintentionally hilarious. The Slammin' Salmon somehow falls in the gap between the two. It's not as funny as it's trying to be, but somehow by falling short it winds up being hilariously bad in it's own right.

The cast seems to be aware which jokes are good and which are bad, and downplay the bad ones appropriately. For example, there's a running joke about one of the waiters having once been on a show called CFI: Hotlanta. Every time the show gets mentioned it's done so with a self knowing, "It sounded better in rehearsal," delivery. They don't try to convince the viewer that a bad joke is comedy gold, allowing the good ones to stand out appropriately.

Like I said, watch this movie with some friends, some beer and a morbid curiosity of what an exceptionally mediocre movie looks like, and you'll enjoy it. Don't expect this to be your new all time favorite comedy, though.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


(Not based on a novel by Sapphire)

When Push first came out, I categorized it to myself as a guilty pleasure. Sure, the movie was fun, but at the time I thought of it as the sort of movie studios make when they realize something is "big" or "in" at the time. Around it's release, The X-Men and Spider-Man franchises had already hit their apexes, and the show Heroes still felt like it was one season away from re-capturing the charm of the first season. In other words "ordinary people dealing with superhuman abilities" was "in" and Push was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately.

The film centers around a group of ex-pat Americans (played by Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning) in Hong Kong with telekinetic abilities who are trying to lay low from a government agency called Division that wants to harness their powers. Take away the Hong Kong part and the plot sounds suspiciously like the first season of Heroes. In fact both stories heavily rely on characters with the ability to draw future events to move the story along, but while Heores's future predictions were drawn by acclaimed artist Tim Sale, Push's predictions were admittedly bad sketches done by Dakota Fanning's character. Probably because of this similarity, I brushed it off in my mind.

Then about a year after it's release, I watched Push again and realized that I actually liked it on it's own terms (and that Heroes had gotten embarrassingly bad). For one thing, I realized it wasn't an attempt at doing a superhero movie without a comic book franchise to back it up. Instead, it's more like an espionage movie with superpowers. The characters aren't constantly blasting each other with fireballs and what not, instead everybody is trying to outwit everybody else. The fight scenes that do ensue are reasonably good, in particular the ones involving a silent blonde guy that repels bullets with his mind, but the focus is more on the characters than the action.

Now, I will admit that this movie has some serious flaws in its execution, but if you accept them ahead of time, you can still enjoy the movie. For one thing, the movie starts off with Dakota Fanning explaining the mythology of the movie; what kinds of powers people have, what they're called and so on. It's an unnecessary info dump one that a better director would have let the audience figure out on its own.

The plot also becomes a bit too complicated towards the end on account of some characters' abilities to see into the future, and other characters' abilities to use mind control. The characters all come up with elaborate methods of side stepping each others' powers that make it easy to lose track of what's going on. But hey, even The Dark Knight got damn hard to follow halfway through, (can anybody honestly explain the Melvin White part?) so I say cut the little guy some slack.

Lastly, it's obvious that the producers had every intention of making this into a franchise. The ending is a bit abrupt and left open for the clear purpose of it leading into a sequel. I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel to this actually, but a tighter ending would have been nice. On the plus side, rumors have been circulating that this film has become enough of a sleeper hit on DVD that the story might get continued as a TV series.

Overall, Push isn't some sci-fi epic that everybody should have seen but didn't. Rather, it's more like the film Equilibrium, in that it's a fun action flick that could have been done better but it's entertaining enough as is. You catch it if it's on cable, or put it in your Netflix queue and pop it in on a weekday night when you feel like an action movie you haven't seen before. Not something you necessarily go out of your way to see, but you'll enjoy it when you get around to watching it.

And it's got Djimon Honsou in it. Yeah, he's been in the occasional bad movie, but have you ever seen him play a role badly?

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Comedies seem to have a short shelf life. They either need to have just enough dramatic moments to win the favor of mainstream critics, or be quotable enough drunk people can recite half of the lines in lieu of actually being funny themselves. (Old School being the ultimate example of this.)

So, I think every now and then I should bring up a comedy on this blog that you've probably already heard of, then promptly forgot about for no reason other than that some idiot hasn't been quoting it for the past decade. Today's entry: Bowfinger.

A few days ago, I watched this for the the first time in ages, and for a ten year old movie, it held up pretty well. The film follows director a hack director named Bobby Bowfinger (played by Steve Martin) as he tries to make an action movie starring the biggest actor in Hollywood, Kit Ramsey (played by Eddie Murphy) without his permission. On top of that, he starts out with only two actors and one crewman.

Director and screenwriters Frank Oz and Steve Martin don't just rely on the premise for one set of gags that they try to milk for an hour and a half. Instead they play it from all angles. Bowfinger keeps finding new ways to lie to his cast to explain Kit Ramsey isn't interacting with them unless the cameras are rolling. Kit, who is paranoid, thinks that aliens are stalking him, not realizing they're actors trying to improvise a sci-fi thriller around him. Heather Graham plays a girl from Ohio who tries to sleep her way through the cast and crew until she can figure out who can help her break into the movie business.

Of course, being an Eddie Murphy movie from the 90's, it was still during that era where he had that thing for playing multiple roles in the same movie. So, in addition to playing action star Kit Ramsey, he also plays a lookalike hired to play Kit when Bowfinger can't figure out how to get the real Kit into some of the scenes. While the multiple-role thing might have gotten a bit annoying in some of his other movies, it works in this movie because it makes sense plot-wise.

In both personas, he manages to steal the movie. As the real Kit Ramsey has great stretches of dialogue where he goes on paranoid rants, like one where he deems a script racist because the letter "K" appears in it a number of times that's divisible by three, which he interprets as meaning that "KKK" is subliminally encoded in the script over 400 times. As the Kit Ramsey impersonator, he's massively awkward, doing stuff like endlessly giggling when he has to do a sex scene.

I think this is also the film where both Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy peaked at. After this, Steve Martin either did family comedies, supporting roles or serious performances. I'm not sure anybody even remembers his serious roles, and he had a few alright movies among his family movies and supporting roles, but nothing as hilarious as this. As for Eddie Murphy, aside from his voice work as Donkey in the Shrek movies, the decade that followed was filled with tragically bad buddy movies and family movies that at most reached a level of "alright." Yes, he had that Oscar nominated performance in Dreamgirls, but this was his last comedic performance that would make you genuinely laugh out loud.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I've been meaning to review a lot of movies by director Danny Boyle on this blog. He's been making movies since 1994, and pretty much all of them have been good. The exception is his film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which tried to hard to be flashy. He's most well known for his films Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. If you've seen those movies, you'd know they're pretty adult fare, which is why many of his fans were surprised in 2004 when he made the family friendly Christmas movie, Millions.

I suppose technically speaking, this isn't so much a Christmas movie as it is a movie set at Christmastime. The distributors clearly thought so, since in America this movie was released in the middle of the summer, but the story just feels a bit more relevant in the holiday season.

Millions is set in the UK in the month leading up to it's changeover from the pound to the euro as its currency. Two kids, Damian and Anthony come across a duffle bag full hundreds of thousands of pounds in their backyard, which they realize they have to do something about soon as it will be worthless when the UK switches to the euro. Anthony, the older brother, wants to spend it and invest it and Damian, the younger brother, wants to give it to the poor.

I should also mention that Damian is frequently visited by visions of saints who explain their personal histories to him.

Millions doesn't resort to the obvious cliche where everybody realizes it's better to give to others than to spend on yourself. It actually becomes a rather complex morality tale, but you should have guessed that it was going to be complex when I told you that it was a family movie that involved changing foreign monetary systems as it's central premise.

Both brothers agree to keep the money secret, though Anthony doesn't waste any time buying fun gadgets and bribing his friends. On the other hand Damian has a bit of difficulty giving away his share, since a grade school kid can't really go about handing out money without raising suspicion. It's not long before things get out of hand for him and everybody feels entitled to some portion of the wealth.

If you've seen any of Danny Boyle's other movies, you'll definitely recognize his directorial style in this one. There's plenty of slick editing and music choices all along the way. One of the most energetic scenes is when the boys learn where the money actually came from, which is set to Muse's song "Hysteria."

The movie is family friendly, but it's complexity may mean that parents watching it with their kids will find they have a lot of questions to answer afterward, probably the largest one being whether or not you'd keep the money for yourself or give it away.

Another heads up: this movie will probably put you in a philanthropic mood afterward. The movie never outright preaches that giving is good. Instead it makes an argument about what one really can do by using money wisely. Keep it to yourself and it's useless. Give it away thoughtlessly and people start expecting it. Somewhere in between, it argues, you can afford to help somebody out while enjoying yourself.

In keeping with that theme, the DVD contained an insert suggested making a donation to Heifer International if you felt inspired by the movie to do some giving. Even if the movie doesn't seem like your cup of tea, at least look into the charity.