Category: 2004


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(A quick aside before I start my actual review. I am on a comically absurd amount of cold medicine at the moment and “high as a kite” is the best description of my state of mind. So, this review may be bad. My apologies.)

Occasionally, I will tell people that I think The Incredibles is the greatest superhero film of all time; they think I’m crazy. And when I say that the film adaptation of Watchmen is the only one that comes even close, they start looking for mental institutions to house me in. But, I also believe those two statements whole-heartedly, but having not seen The Incredibles since high school, I was worried that the film wouldn’t have aged as well as my exceptionally fond memories. Thankfully, it’s like fine wine. It’s only gotten better. With a dark and mature thematic complexity that manages to exceed even director Brad Bird’s earlier masterpiece, The Iron Giant. Though the film doesn’t reduce me to a sobbing, blubbering mess like Up and Toy Story 3, this earlier Pixar entry marked the beginning of the peak of Pixar’s new Golden Age and represents one of the finest children’s films of the 2000s.

More than any traditional comic book superhero film (even the best ones like The Avengers or Spiderman 2), The Incredibles not only captures the spirit of modern heroic storytelling and the grandiose mythology inherent therein, it becomes a meta-commentary on superheroes in general and both deconstructs and then reconstructs society’s need for heroes and those who are truly exceptional. With an explicit as well as implied body count that rivals Titan A.E., Brad Bird doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of one of the most sadistic and evil villains in the Disney or Pixar canon. It creates a thrilling story that offers a lesson on the nature of truly being special without talking down to the audience or offering artificial, feel-good plaudits. The Incredibles succeeds as a spectacle-fueled children’s adventure tale as well as a philosophical examination of family and potential for the older members of the audience.

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In a situation not entirely dissimilar to Watchmen, The Incredibles takes place in a world where all superheroes have been forced to retire by a government and public distrustful of their powers and their place above them in society. Before he was forced into retirement, Bob Parr (Poltergeist‘s Craig T. Nelson) was the super-strong Mr. Incredible but now his job entails him being the opposite of hero, working as an insurance claims adjuster where he’s yelled at by his boss (My Dinner with Andre‘s Wally Shawn) for not screwing over their customers as much as humanly possible. Before Bob retired, he married fellow super, Helen/Elastigirl (Raising Arizona‘s Holly Hunter), and post-retirement the pair are not-so-happily married with three children, the ultra-fast Dash, the shy Violet (with Sue Storm’s powers from the Incredibles), and the seemingly non-super-powered infant Jack.

Bob does not adjust well to civilian life and whether he hates himself for his job or is simply bored sitting in his cramped car on his commute to work. And though Helen has come to terms with her new life, it’s clear that the life of a stay at home mom isn’t for her either and forcing her children to hide their superpowers is causing tensions at home as Dash acts out in class cause he has no way to vent his energy. Bob has even taken to, in a story meant to parallel marital infidelity, sneaking out with an old friend from his superhero days, Frozone (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson), to fight crime while telling his wife he’s out bowling. But, when Bob gets an offer to break out of the doldrums of retirement, it’s not long til he discovers it’s a trap from a mistake from his past that has now put him and his entire family in danger.

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The voice performances from all of the principal leads are all (lame pun incoming) incredible. Craig T. Nelson’s career has been, to put it gently, non-existent since Coach got off television with only some small bit parts here and there, and it’s probably not much of a stretch to call Mr. Incredible the role of his career. He captures the frustration and ennui of an exceptional man forced into a life of mediocrity. Holly Hunter is an excellent and accomplished actress in her own right so clearly Elastigirl isn’t The Piano or Raising Arizona but she too finds herself railing against her domesticated lifestyle. And there are great supporting turns from Jason Lee as the villain of the piece and Sam Jackson as Frozone. Though, let’s face it, is it ever possible to hear Sam Jackson’s voice and not get excited?

Alright, you know what. I’m too buzzed on cold medicine to do this review justice right now. I thnk I’ve been working on it for like two and a half hours now and I’ve only written 800 words. I would usually have written two reviews of comparable length in that time. Needless to say, The Incredibles is not just one of the best children’s films of the last ten years but arguably of all time and few superhero movies get superhero storytelling as well as it does (if any). The movie is unremittingly dark for a Disney film and when many of its sugar-coated peers will start to fade into the mist of memory, The Incredibles will be around for a long, long time. I just wish I’d had the chance to review it when I was capable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together without subsequently staring at the ceiling for about five minutes in a medicinally-induced haze.

Final Score: A

 

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This review is going to be as much about the fundamental rules of storytelling as it is a traditional critique of Primer. So, if you aren’t interested in a metatextual examination of the limits of cinematic storytelling, you should skip this review. Also, it is beyond impossible to discuss the labyrinthine nature of this time-travel puzzle’s plot without engaging in what some would claim are spoilers and for that I apologize. Primer is the type of film that every fan of high-concept cinema should force themselves to watch. And though I didn’t walk away from this movie with the sort of rapturous adulation that its most ardent supporters bestow upon it, I understand that has as much to do with my structural beliefs regarding the nature of cinema as it does the quality of the movie itself. Taken on its own terms, Primer is a scientific jigsaw puzzle of the highest order; as an entertaining or enlightening viewing experience, it leaves a little more to be desired.

I’ve written four screenplays (haven’t sold any yet; haven’t really tried to yet either though); but I know that I will never in my entire life write a film that reaches the masterful complexity of Primer. I was always a shitty strategist in chess, and I’m just not that capable of thinking that far ahead. Most pieces of fiction are lucky if they include one well-placed Chekhov’s Gun (check the hyperlink if you are unfamiliar with the literary device). Primer is composed almost entirely of subtle and easily-missed foreshadowing. There is so little “fat” in this film that beyond the budget requirements of the film (the movie was made for around $7,000 with most of the money being spent on film stock), the movie’s 77 minute running time could be as much a commentary on reducing storytelling to its essentials as it is an act of frugality.

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However, what qualifies as the bare essentials of Primer could fill up the essentials of around a dozen other films. Calling Primer dense would be like calling the Pacific Ocean damp. I proposed this to an engineer friend of mine and he concurred with my sentiment so I feel comfortable stating it here. Primer is like porn for engineers and practical scientists. Though the basic concept of time-travel used is silly and technobabble to some extent, the scientific and mathematic language used in the film is rooted in actuality. And, thus, if like me you don’t have a Master’s in one of the physical sciences, engineering, or math, Primer can be an impossible cliff to climb. Thankfully, my best friend (a, for lack of a better word, genius and modern renaissance man) was present while we watched the film and he helped to keep me up to speed about what the characters were talking about. Primer exceeds even The Wire in its expectation that an audience will be able to follow its plot without any artificial exposition.

And therein lies the rub of the film. On the one hand, I praise Primer as an intellectual brain-teaser of the highest order. It is so smart and detailed and expertly complex that it is without question that I will watch this film at least half a dozen more times in the next year or two trying to suss out its secrets. It’s the type of movie that I’ll have to watch with explanatory charts open so that I can keep of the various timelines and iterations of the plot. But, and this is incredibly important, once you solve the puzzle of the film, I worry that Primer has little else to speak for it (besides an exceptional use of a tiny budget). Multiple viewings will help me understand the byzantine structure of the film’s narrative. But will it ever make me care about its characters? Will I ever find an actual emotional arc worth investing in? Based on my viewing of the film and a subsequent obsessive consumption of synopses of the film’s plot, I think not.

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It is a testament to the outlandish, almost Lynchean complexity of the film (more on why I prefer a Lynch-style puzzle later) that I haven’t even actually touched on the plot of the film yet, the idea that I needed that sort of preface to any sort of analysis of this film. Four friends run a small-scale lab out of the garage of Aaron (Shane Carruth) as a way to make money on the side apart from their boring day jobs as engineers. But a schism over the direction of their entrepreneurial activities causes a schism in the group, and without informing the others, Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan) begin work on their own invention, a room-temperature super-conductor. But, without realizing it, the pair have also invented a machine whose contents are shuttled back and forth through time roughly 1300 times. And that’s not the complicated part of the film.

After realizing the potential of their machine (which goes beyond their original hope to create a cheap, more efficient energy source), Aaron and Abe decide to create a larger version of their machine, which they now call the box, which would be able to fit a person inside of it. And, thus they invent man-made time travel, but with serious limitations. The box can only send someone back to the time that the machine is turned on so in order to travel six hours in time, you have to turn the machine on, wait six hours, and then, you must wait six hours in the box to go backwards in time. They use this extra six hours of causal influence on the universe to try and influence minor events like the stock market and sports betting, but when their careful attempts to cause as little change as possible proves more than they can handle, the plot of Primer spirals outward to near insanity as multiple iterations of the same timeline show the continued change Abe and Aaron’s interference is wrecking on the time stream.

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If that sounds complex, that’s the dumbed down version of the plot. If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably familiar with graphs like this which attempt to explain the looping/spiraling plot of the film. Based on what I’ve read of these charts, Shane Carruth’s plotting is masterful to an insane, Chinatown-esque degree. In fact, I imagine Robert Towne would have to bow down to the attention to continuity and detail that Shane Carruth displayed in literally every second of Primer. And, if Primer is meant as a commentary on what would have to be the inherently insane details of time travel and messing with causality, then the film is an unqualified success. The viewer is as lost in the woods as the heroes of the piece. But I still fret that the puzzle is all Primer has to offer.

Once you’ve conquered the puzzle of Primer (and if you’ve done that without the help of graphs and charts and internet forums, congratulations; you’re a genius), is there anything left to comeback to? Great storytelling rewards repeat viewings even after you’ve “mastered” the film. There is nothing left in Annie Hall for me to notice, but the emotional power of the film grows with each viewing as I mature and come to appreciate the adult romance of it or Manhattan. Clearly, getting in lost in the seemingly countless little details that Carruth has hidden throughout the film is a pleasure in its own right. But that’s pure plotting. Great storytelling is a combination of great characters and great plotting. I feel fairly safe in saying that Primer leans entirely to the latter side of that equation. For when you find all the details, I worry the film leaves you with no new resonances.

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I’m going to cut this review short because I watched two films with my best friend last night. We watched this and (500) Days of Summer, and I need to review both. Though I am coming off as especially critical of the lack of an actual substantive core of the film, I hope that isn’t read as a critique of the value of Primer. Shane Carruth accomplished exactly what he wanted to. He made a mad, brain-stretching puzzle that will be confounding new and old audiences for decades to come. My desire for more character and for more emotional context to the actions of the heroes is a comment on what I want in a film, not necessarily what makes a film good. As long as you have an IQ of around 120 or so, you owe it to yourself to watch Primer. If you’re anything like me, you’ll lose sleep trying to unravel its secrets.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’ve long thought about trying my hand at writing a war movie. Other than the clear obstacle that I have absolutely no military experience whatsoever, I’ve alays been plagued by my desire to not write your typical, American military film. If I ever wrote a war movie, I wouldn’t want to write about the winning side, or, in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan, at least not one who achieved anything more than a Pyrrhic victory. War films about glorious victors are too self-congratulatory and celebratory. The notion of “We won; you lost,” permeates every scene and they generally fail to capture the hellish realities of war. And, perhaps, that’s why my two favorite World War II films come from the perspective of the soon-to-be damned.

Up until last night, I would have said 1981′s Das Boot was the best World War II movie ever made. Wolfgang Petersen’s classic examination of life on a German U-Boat at the end of World War II captures the reality of “War Is Hell” better than any film ever made, except perhaps Grave of the Fireflies. And it achieved that through avoid any glorification of war whatsoever. These men’s lives were miserable and full of death, and even when they made it back to Germany, death awaited them. It was one man’s deconstruction of a glorious myth of his own people’s past, and it remains one of the finest war films ever made. 2004′s Downfall takes an even more stark and controversial route than Das Boot by daring to humanize the final days of the Third Reich.

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It is, in Germany, illegal to display most symbols of the Nazi party. Nationalist and hard-right political parties are illegal, and performing the Nazi salute is a prosecutable offense. German’s are sick, to this day, to their very soul by the horrors they committed in World War II, and what makes Downfall work so well is that, like The White Ribbon, it is both a cinematic excoriation of the darker side of German culture as well as an honest humanization of the men and women who oversaw some of the worst atrocities in human history. That the film dares offer a realistic and honest portrait of Adolf Hitler alone would have qualified it as mandatory World War II viewing, but the film is much more ambitious and far-sighted than that.

Based heavily on the testimony of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Downfall is a painstakingly realized portrayal of the final week of the men in the Third Reich’s bunker in Berlin as Russian forces slowly but surely capture the city. Hitler (Wings of Desire‘s Bruno Ganz) lives in a schizophrenic state of absolute refusal to accept that his dreams shall not come to pass against sudden bouts of realistic acceptance and plans for his own imminent suicide with his mistress Eva Braun (Nowhere in Africa‘s Juliane Kohler). As  Hitler’s stability dwindles, his top generals and brass, including Albert Speer, Heinrich Himler, and Josef Goebbels, are left fighting amongst themselves on whether to obey’s the Fuhrer’s orders and refuse surrender or to ignore Hitler and save their people from total destruction.

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And as life in the bunker devolves into a daily race to see who Hitler accuses of being a traitor next (if for no other reason than not being able to follow his impossible demands), life above the bunker in the streets of Berlin is even worse. Goebbels has commanded battalions of children to serve as cannon fodder to slow the advance of the Red Army. Heinrich Himmler has removed all of the SS and most top government officials from the city leaving the remaining civilians to die of starvation and sickness. And what few doctors remain in the city are stretched threadbare amongst the surviving resistance. And, without fail, the Russians continue their march into the city itself.

Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is one of the most remarkable and stunningly courageous performances in the history of the silver screen. Hitler is not the type of role any German actor would naturally gravitate towards, but Ganz brings him to life in a wrenchingly honest way. In a performance that can only be described as the exact opposite of his kind and sensitive angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, Ganz’s Hitler is by turns despotic, brutal, cruel, and unyielding. Yet, minutes later, he can be caring, gentle with women and children, despairing, and frightened. If any historical figure from the 1900s lends itself to over-the-top caricature, it’s Hitler, but even in his most explosive angry moments, Bruno Ganz keeps his characterization frighteningly realistic.

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And Ganz is supported by an exceptional pool of talented German actors and actresses. Anyone who’s seen Nowhere in Africa knows how talented Juliane Kohler is, and her Eva Braun is exceptionally different from her suffering Jewish wife/mother. She’s a manic creature who wants to manufacture a joie de vivre in the bunker even when she knows she will die soon. Alexandra Maria Lara brings the secretary to life, and you sympathize with her suffering even though you know she works directly for one of the most evil men in human history. Other stellar supporting performances include Corinna Harfouch as Goebbel’s zealously loyal wife, Christian Berkel as a nazi doctor, and Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels himself.

When the movie was released in 2004, it was fairly controversial for its dogged refusal to not simply make its protagonist monstrous caricatures. Yes, we see how truly monstrous these men and women can be. Hitler asserts repeatedly that the German people don’t deserve to live after the war because they have failed him. Goebbel’s wife, Magda, poisons her children in their sleep rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Many of Hitler’s men scheme to depose him now that the war is clearly lost. But, at the same time, the movie touches on the small moments of humanity these comrades share before their downfall. Eva Braun gives Traudl her best fur coat. Hitler walks his dog and congratulates his best soldiers. Goebbels leads his children in German songs to entertain the soldiers and the Fuhrer.

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The film never stops finding little moments like that. Though there is plenty of conventional warfare going on above the bunker (which is displayed in graphic detail), the movie’s most effective moments are in the character-building and day-to-day life at the end of a wannabe empire. This movie’s deliberate pacing may scare away more action-oriented war movie lovers, but for those who understand that the key to a successful war film (or any film to be honest) is character driven storytelling (so we’re invested in the outcome on screen), Downfall‘s dedication to character is a breath of fresh air.

At 110o words, I’m going to draw this review to a close because I promised my sister I would watch the Billy Wilder/Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina with her later. Also, I’m very, very hungry. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until 2:30 PM). If you’re looking for a World War II movie that breaks the mold, look no further than Downfall. After some contemplation, it replaces Das Boot as what I consider to be the best World War II film ever made, and it’s deserving of a wider audience than it’s had over the years.

Final Score: A

 

The Village

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After the massive success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan had positioned himself to be the “next big thing” in American cinema. And although Unbreakable didn’t have the same level of commercial success, critical consensus has come down that it was Shyamalan’s best work. People loved Signs, and it too was a hit, but somewhere along the way, M. Night Shyamalan lost his way. Most people point to 2004′s The Village as the moment this happened. His hold on the box office broke, and the critics suddenly stopped fawning over his works. And while I can see why The Village began to alienate so many of Shyamalan’s fans, I’m going to make the unpopular case that The Village isn’t nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is. Take away its absurd ending (which I predicted early on during my first viewing) and you have a genuinely atmospheric thriller centered around a fantastic ensemble cast.

One of the things that makes The Village still enjoyable despite its contrived ending (I’m going to rant a lot about how dumb the ending is without actually saying what it was cause… spoilers) is the genuine sense of place and atmosphere leaking out of every frame. Shyamalan’s greatest strength as a director and writer has always been lending a feeling of authenticity and sincerity to his workThe titular village feels lived in, and early on, the film deftly sets up a steady stream of interesting tidbits and secrets hidden within the nooks and crannies of the village that flood the film with Shyamalan’s trademark anxiety. The Village certainly never rises to the level of high drama, but it doesn’t want to. However, as a spooky period thriller it delivers legitimate chills even when you want to punch somebody in the face for how god-awful the twist at the end is.

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Deep in the Pennsylvania woods, in the late 1800s, lies a village cut off from the rest of the world. Though the town is peaceful and happy, it has a dark secret. The townspeople are beset on all sides by monstrous creatures that live in the woods. Though there have been no sightings by “those that we do not speak of” for many years, fear of their wrath is enough to keep the townsfolk scared and within the borders of their peaceful hamlet. When a young child gets sick and dies, brave Lucius Hunt (The Master‘s Joaquin Phoenix) believes that the only hope for the future of the village is to leave its borders and seek the nearby towns for medical advances.

Lucius immediately runs into the disapproval of the town’s elders who insist that no one exit the town for fear of “those that we do not speak of.” And so Lucius must grow frustrated even as he finally speaks his love for the beautiful Ivy Walker (The Help‘s Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind but tomboyish daughter of the town’s head elder (Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt). But when the blooming romance between Ivy and Lucius enrages the jealousy of the mentally disabled Noah Pearcy (Midnight in Paris‘s Adrien Brody), a terrible act of violence makes breaching the village’s borders a matter of life and death, and Lucius and Ivy must confront the village’s secrets once and for all.

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Lest any one still think that Bryce Dallas Howard only has a career because her father is director Ron Howard, let The Village and The Help (her performance being one of the few good things about that garbage film) be shining examples of why that isn’t true. The romantic chemistry between Ivy and Lucius helps hold the film together as well as the ultimate bravery that we learn rests deep within Ivy, and Bryce Dallas Howard (along with Joaquin Phoenix) made that possible when the film’s dialogue seemed overly silly. Adrien Brody also really excelled as the both innocent and violent Noah Percy.

The Village also succeeds with  a lush cinematography with an exquisite understanding of the value of a strong color palette. The movie is awash in shades of red and yellow, and when one dominant color presides, it heightens the entire mood of a scene. And, a fantastic use of fire and candle light accentuate the period appeal of The Village‘s setting. The movie’s score also works to help enhance the anxiety and fear of the unknown that defines the life of the people living in this village.

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Sadly, The Village has one of the dumbest endings this side of The Lost Symbol. And it’s not that the ending itself is so bad. Conceptually, I sort of appreciate the whole notion of the world that Shyamalan has created in this movie. It is the utter ineptitude with which Shyamalan reveals his master twist (and by that, I mean the very last “twist” of the film not an earlier, somewhat foreshadowed one). I feel it’s safe to say that Shyamalan gives absolutely no foreshadowing of the actual truth of this film in The Village. This was my third viewing of the film in my life, and I saw no hints of what was coming later on. The only way to pull of the twist Shyamalan uses is to make it possible for audiences to guess it, and the only reason I guessed it the first time I watched it was because it was the most insane twist I could possibly think up. Sadly, I was right.

The Village has garnered a lot of hate over the years, but honestly, the only area of the film that deserves the hate is the ending. At the end of the day, The Village is a fun, modern spin on the American fairy tale and of boogeymen and things that go bump in the night. It crafts a tale around a fascinating mythology and places it in a context of classic character archetypes and solid performances. By no means is the film as earth-shattering as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but The Village mostly succeeds on its own terms even as Shyamalan tries to destroy his own work in the film’s final act. I recommend giving The Village another spin. It may have aged better than you think.

Final Score: B

 

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It is rare for an American remake of a film to be remotely as good as the foreign film it’s based on, let alone be better. Let Me In is one of the only ones I can think of off the top of my head and it still isn’t the instant classic that Let the Right One In has become in my mind. Usually, American remakes dial down any sexual or disturbing content (barring violence) that made the original stand out, and because they almost never improve upon the original piece in any way, they are simply redundant at best and bastardizations at worst. With that said, am I a terrible person for thinking that The Departed is vastly superior to Infernal Affairs, the 2004 Hong Kong film it is based on?

I watched Infernal Affairs for my film studies class (where we’re watching nothing but gangster movies) and we’ll be watching The Departed next week (although I watched that film last semester during that several month hiatus where I wasn’t reviewing movies to work on my screenplays). And other than the film’s ending (no, I won’t spoil it for anyone. don’t worry), I’m not sure if I can name a single area where Martin Scorsese’s remake isn’t simply a much better product than this film. From the script, to the characters, to the direction, to the editing, to the cinematography, Infernal Affairs has now become in my mind the go to example of how a good story can become a great film when given to the right hands.

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I will give the film credit for coming up with the clever story that is at both the heart of it and The Departed (although the latter so greatly expands on the themes and the characters that this film almost just seems like a sketch in comparison). Two different men are chosen to go deep undercover into the organizations of their boss’s biggest enemies. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is hired by the Triad to infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Department while police cadet Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triad. And as each goes deeper and higher into their undercover ops, their job becomes to find out who the mole is in their ranks.

And that’s really it. I’m going to keep on bleating on about how much better The Departed is than this film, but I’ve always thought of The Departed as one of Scorsese’s slightest films. It’s one of his films that relies the most on style over substance, but if The Departed is slight, Infernal Affairs is just anorexic. Although the film is a terrific example of non-stop intelligent pacing (the film really manages to ratchet the tension up and never let up right out of the gates), the characters are paper-thin, and you are given absolutely no reason to care about anyone involved. And when characters die or are betrayed or reveal shocking allegiances, none of it matters because you don’t feel any emotional attachment to the individuals involved.

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The direction and editing of the film though are what lead me to think of this film as being so amateurish (although I suppose any movie would pale in comparison to something Martin Scorsese touched). The opening sequences of the film are an endless stream of cross-cuts which lend no sense of direction or meaning to the story and it took me far too long to even realize what was happening and who was good and who was bad. And the film employs so many cheesy scene transitions and unnecessary expository flashbacks (not to unseen events in the film but things that have already happened once already) that you begin to feel like the director doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to keep up with the action on scren.

I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I enjoyed Infernal Affairs, and maybe, if I hadn’t seen The Departed first, I would have liked it a lot more. As it stands, Infernal Affairs is a good movie with a great concept, and it took a more talented creative team to really bring fruit to the story. If you like foreign cinema, it’s certainly a must see, and if you’re a big fan of its American successor, it’s interesting to see just how many of the scenes were lifted straight from this film. But ultimately, it’s just a serviceable action thriller.

Final Score: B

 

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A lot of really talented directors/writers have a hard time finding a balance between endearingly quirky and artificially eccentric. As much as I love Wes Anderson films, it often feels like Anderson is trying too hard to make his characters seem original by making them insufferably and unrealistically off-beat. Sometimes it works, Rushmore; sometimes it doesn’t, Moonrise Kingdom (though that film has its brilliant moments as well). Juno suffered from the same problem because as realistic as Juno’s problems are, there are no actual teenage girls that talked like her. At least, there weren’t until that film came out and inspired girls to speak like Ellen Page. Jared Hess’s breakout directorial debut, Napoleon Dynamite, has become a bit of a modern cult classic, but I have always found it to be so bad that it’s nearly unwatchable and that Hess’s characters are almost all artificially eccentric and not in the slightest endearingly quirky.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a mouth-breathing, chronic-lying nerd with a penchant for drawing pencil doodles of fictional creatures. He lives at home with his grandmother and his 32-year old, effeminate brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Kip spends his day chatting on line with his internet girlfriend Lafanda, whose reality is a legitimate question for most of the film. Napoleon gets bullied at school and his only two friends are transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and shy Deb (Big Love‘s Tina Majorino). When Napoleon’s grandmother is in a dune buggy accident, his creepy uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is sent to look after him and Kip. Rico longs for his glory days on the football field in high school (although the film implies that he was only a backup quarterback), and his endless schemes to make money and glory only serve to nearly ruin Napoleon’s life at every turn.

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Jon Heder gives arguably one of the worst lead performances thus far for this blog. I could go back and look at every single movie I’ve reviewed (I probably won’t), but I imagine I would be hard-pressed to find a more unbelievable and grating performance than his. Anyone who’s seen Gentleman Broncos knows that subtlety isn’t the strong suit of any part of any Jared Hess film, and he was unable to coax a life-like performance from the wooden and slack-jawed Jon Heder. No one on this actual planet talks like Napoleon. You consistently feel like you’re watching a performance in a student film where they’re trying to give an example of how to be as awful as humanly possible in a performance. And the actors playing Kip and Pedro are not remotely any better.

The only two performances in the film that make the acting in the movie bearable are Tina Majorino as Deb and Jon Gries as Uncle Rico. I remember when I first watched this film that I thought Tina Majorino gave the worst performance of the whole movie. Now, I can easily say it was the best. Whereas Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Aaron Ruell turn awkwardness into camp and stiff artificiality, Tina Majorino makes Deb seem like the shy but sensitive girl we all knew in high school. She just dives right into the part and doesn’t hold back. In fact, had the film been about Deb, it might have actually been a decent film. And Jon Gries becomes one of the only consistent sources of humor in the film as Uncle Rico. He’s the only actor with a real sense of comic timing, and he finds the creepiness and despair that both lie at the heart of Rico.

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I’ll keep this review short because I simply don’t like this movie, and nothing I can say about it will persuade its legions of fans that it’s unwatchable drivel. Let me then close with this. Some films are so bad that they’re brilliant. Rocky Horror Picture Show is objectively an awful movie, but the fun and camp at it’s heart makes it a bizarre classic. Jared Hess tries to make a film that is so bad it’s great with Napoleon Dynamite, but instead, the movie remains almost entirely so bad that it’s a trainwreck. The film has its moments that made me laugh but I could count them on one hand, and the one truly great sequence (Napoleon’s final dance number) isn’t enough to make up for an hour and a half of a film that is too painfully awkward to watch and not in that good Freaks and Geeks type of way.

Final Score: C-

Before he was the biggest name in hip-hop (and the best thing to happen to the genre since Outkast), Kanye was just a kid from Chi-Town whose production skills were legendary (one need only look at his contributions to The Blueprint to see that) but whose mic prowess was unknown. But Yeezy had a thing or two to teach the world, and I’m not sure if there’s ever been a better breakthrough album in hip-hop than The College Dropout. It’s not perfect. The front half is, but the second half is spotty at best. But, with that album, Kanye West would begin his journey that would ultimately change hip-hop forever. You may not like the man but his genre-blurring ambitions and refusal to just be another rapper has radically changed the hip-hop landscape this decade. “Spaceship” isn’t my favorite Kanye West song. That’s probably “Lost in the World” or “Runaway,” but this is the best song off his first record (possibly his first four records although I do love “Love Lockdown” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”). As someone who wiles away his day in retail hell, I can relate to a lot of this track (although obviously not the parts about being black). Enjoy.

 

Is there a better garage rock band than the Strokes? The White Stripes maybe but since their music is apples and oranges, it’s understandable why some people may be confused when they’re lumped together into the same genre. I know I promised everyone a real movie review today before I did my song of the day post, but I went out drinking last night with some friends (instead of staying in, home and by myself to review a movie) and I worked today so I never really had a chance to get around to righting that wrong. I’m sorry. Since I work again tomorrow, there’s a decent chance that we’ll go another day without a movie review. We shall see. I hope not. Anyways, my boss from New York City (as opposed to my boss at the mall here in WV) and I were talking about the Strokes today and how Julian Casablancas writes all of his music on the piano before the band turns it into fuzzed out/reverbed craziness. I started gushing about how much I love “Reptilia” and it was a simple choice for my song of the day. Enjoy.

 

I’m not a big Will Ferrell fan. His time on SNL is probably the textbook definition of how to do sketch comedy well, but his movies are hit or miss at best. Stranger than Fiction is the only really good film Will Ferrell has made in about a decade. I enjoy some of his sophomoric Adam McKay-directed, Jud Apatow produced comedies (Semi-Pro, Blades of Glory), but mostly even with the ones I enjoy, I know that they are broadly written collections of cheap laughs. The worst of the films (Talledega Nights, Step Brothers) are borderline unwatchable except for having a rare funny or quotable moment here or there. He basically took his Frank the Tank character from Old School and found minor permutations and ways to change it to essentially play the same character for a decade strong now. It’s time to vary up your career with more challenging roles Mr. Ferrell. Still, even the cynical, angry curmudgeon in me must admit that the leading man role that got Will Ferrell his big break in Hollywood is the definition of a modern cult classic. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy remains eight years later one of the most quotable films of the aughts (along with The Hangover although not quite as consistently funny asThe Hangover). It’s not the most intellectual comedy ever written but it’s complete embrace of the absurd and surrealism means its still able to make me laugh my ass off all of these years later.

Set in the 1970s, Anchorman is the story of a fictional TV news program in San Diego just when feminism in the workplace was on the rise. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the chauvinistic, womanizing, moron that is lead anchor for the Channel 4 news program which is the number one show in the San Diego area. Along with his co-reporters including the mentally disabled weatherman Brick (Steve Carrell), the possibly homosexual sports broadcaster Champ (David Koechner), and the rakish field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Ron is the cock of the walk in San Diego, worshiped by his legion of viewers and the women he parties with. But when ambitious and sexy hard-nosed reporter Veronica (Christina Applegate) shows up in the news room, things get shaken up very quickly. Despite Veronica’s better judgement, a romantic relationship blooms between Veronica and Ron but his sexism and her quick rise in the offices threatens to destroy their relationship as well as Ron’s entire career.

This is easily Will Ferrel’s most iconic role. It was the part that shot him to stardom and made everyone realize he could be a leading man rather than just a supporting sidekick or foil (though honestly, on film, I think that’s where he should go back to being because his solo work is less than impressive). If you were to ask the average Joe to name a Will Ferrell role off the top of their head, you have to think that Ron Burgundy or Frank the Tank would be the first answer given. And honestly, while there are definitely traces in this role of virtually every other Will Ferrell part from the last 8 years, he still manages to be very funny in this film. While his hyperactive, full-blown crazy side manages to elicit more laughs than it has in the intervening years, its his ability to dial the intensity down in this film and deliver the occasional deadpan joke that makes Ron Burgundy his most memorable celluloid creation. It doesn’t hurt that nearly everything that Ron Burgundy says is completely quotable but this is one of the rare Will Ferrell roles where he finds a balance between the two extreme sides of his acting persona. Christina Applegate isn’t especially funny in her role but as the “straight man” of the cast, she wasn’t meant to be. This film also turned out to be a break-out role (or one of several break out roles) for both Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell. Steve Carrell brings nearly as many classic Anchorman moments to the table as Will Ferrell does.

Trying to put my finger on the pulse of why this film is so endlessly quotable and enjoyable but Ferrell’s other films (which are structurally and stylistically similar) aren’t is difficult. Obviously, the film’s quotability plays a heavy part. The only reason I wound up watching this movie was because my sister hadn’t seen it, and throughout the entire film I was supplying the end to every punchline or non-sequitur (of which there are a lot). Anchorman is without question one of those films that grows on you with every viewing. I probably enjoyed it the first time I saw it but didn’t love it. Now, watching Anchorman is an exercise in getting to all of the great gags and set pieces. Speaking of set pieces, more than any of the other Adam McKay films, Anchorman has a serious bent to the surreal and absurd. Whether it’s the anchorman gang fight (where Brick stabs a man in the heart with a trident and Luke Wilson loses an arm), the jazz flute scene, or the part where Ron ends up in a zoo pit with bears, Anchorman tries to be as intentionally outrageous as possible. That’s part of the film’s charm. It crosses the line so many times (punting a dog off of a bridge for example) that you know not to try and take the movie seriously whatsoever. But it earns this comedic goodwill unlike the rest of Adam McKay’s ouevre (if you use the word ouevre in reference to Adam McKay, you probably aren’t his target audience).

The obvious payoff here is that in the face of all of the film’s truly hilarious moments, the moments where the jokes fall flat seem even more trite, boring, and lazy particularly in the face of the collected output of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay for the last ten years. Simply because this film laid the blocks in place for the rest of his movies, it robs the film of some of the freshness it had when first released. Still, even with those reservations, I haven’t stopped enjoying Anchorman after all of this time (it’s been several years since I’ve actually sat down and watched it), and it’s one of those films with lines that have entered my working, every day vocabulary. It’s not a perfect film, and it’s not Will Ferrell’s best movie. That’s certainly Stranger than Fiction. But as far as comedies that you can enjoy without having to put your thinking cap on, Anchorman might be the cat’s pajamas.

Final Score: B+

At work today, we ran the interview that I did with British piano-rock band Keane which you can read here if you’re a fan. Anyways, it was an awesome moment because they’re the second biggest band I’ve interviewed (behind the Fray), and unlike the Fray, I actually enjoy Keane’s music quite a bit. I’m not normally into this whole post-Britpop thing that Coldplay is the leader of, but Keane have always stood out to me. Part of that may be because of how simply beautiful and memorable their hit single “Somewhere Only We Know” is. I’m embarrassed to admit that I learned about this song when beat boxer Blake Lewis sang this during one of the first elimination (by votes anyways) rounds of his season of American Idol, but the second I heard the song I fell in love with it. And I’ve owned the original Keane version ever since. It’s just a gorgeous ballad and one of my favorite love songs. I think this song has wound up on so many different mixtapes that I’ve made for girls over the years. Enjoy.

 

If you want to listen to the May Song of the Day playlist, you can find it here on Spotify. If you’re interested in the entire 2012 playlist so far, you can find a more comprehensive playlist here.

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