Summer Film Roundup

Safety Not Guaranteed
Dir. Colin Trevorrow, 86 min., Netflix Instant

Strongly disguised as a romcom, this film rarely does much to approach the time travel genre other than assembling a motley crew full of personal regrets. I failed to buy in to the outsider magazine intern (Aubrey Plaza) finding anything in common with the Dwight-like time traveler (Jake Johnson). In the subplot, her chauvinistic (but secretly sensitive) boss and the Indian nerd intern (that, frankly and unfairly, stands in for every dork everywhere) have a debauched mentor/protege relationship in the frat boy sense, but that story line pans out with very few hijinks and a whole lot of the type of talk you expect to hear from your drunken uncle at the family picnic. *spoiler* WTF, the time machine works at the end?? So we were to believe that this was a serious time travel piece? What a disappointing ending.

AV Club: B
Dissolve: n/a
RT: 91%
me: C-


Only God Forgives
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 90 min., Netflix Instant

It’s hard to comment too much on this director’s style, given that I only know him from this film (he directed the critical darling Drive [2011]), but he must have gone to the Kubrickian school when he was filming this piece: the slow panning shots with the jarring sound bursts, the monochrome lighting and color scheme (though supposedly he is colorblind, a difficulty I can somewhat identify with), the cuts to mid-range shots of actors in silent relief. The cinematography is great; if only, as A.A. Dowd points out, there were real characters in the film. Everyone is more of a description than a well-defined person. Ryan Gosling, as an emasculated, Oedipal drug dealer, barely even speaks let alone emotes. He’s more of a mannequin posing for the shot (except for one animated moment with his hooker “girlfriend”). The stoical nature of the characters and lack of facial expressions comes off like a Greek morality play (strongly suggested by the bleak title), but the film’s coldness leaves the viewer cold in turn towards the eventual resolution.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 3/5
RT: 40%
me: C-


The Monuments Men
Dir. George Clooney, 118 min., Redbox

Clooney essentially presents us with “The Dime Store Ocean’s Eleven Crew Saves Art for the Rest of the Uncaring Idiots of the World Who Can’t Appreciate How Great it All Is.” So whereas I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan (1998) in a few years, I could recount five or six of the main cast members defining characteristics (and maybe even the actor names as well). I just watched this film a couple of hours ago and I couldn’t tell you one damn thing about anyone but the top three stars (Clooney, Damon, and Murray), and even then I didn’t get much to recount. The dialogue apes Ocean’s and the mission, while interesting and important, would definitely be better covered by a PBS documentary than a film, as most of the action is spaced out and jumps from city to city.

Sadly, unless you have more than a passing interest in the history of that period and have taken an art history course as well (as the film provides scant discussions of art other than the Judeo-Christian lionizing of important icons), it seems more like a random race across unknown landscapes to save objects that we are told are very important, but can’t really appreciate on much more than a superficial level. One thing is clear: America has everyone’s best interest in mind and will preserve artworks from not only our own destructive impulses, but those of everyone else who can’t comprehend the magnificence of art. That may have been true, but the film strongly paints our country as the “last best hope for man on earth.”.

AV Club: C
Dissolve: 2/5
RT: 32%
me: D+

Well, that was a bunch or rotten onions. Hopefully the next crop tastes sweeter.

Pop culture roundup

I’ve been busy with dissertation writing, but I have had time for a few odds and ends in the pop culture department that I wanted to share.

In my Shakespeare in Film course that I offered last year, we debated the merits of digital versus 70mm and whether one would supplant the other. An article from WBEZ raised the issue again, and after I read that article Nicole and I ended up seeing Vertigo at the Music Box Theater’s 70mm Film Festival.

Vertigo was not technically a 70mm film, as it was shot in 35mm and a conversion/restoration print was made some time ago. The film received mixed initial reviews, but from what I’ve seen of Hitchcock it was one of his better films. Considering that he had little formal training in cinematography, he gets some iconic shots and (of course) the Vertigo effect on the camera that has been endlessly replicated in other films. The film sounded great as well, possibly another byproduct of the restoration.

In terms of the merits of the film itself, there are issues of believably and somewhat shallow supporting characters (as well as some plot continuity, as the film was hard to follow at times). Rating it I would say around a B+.

I started watching the show Cult on the CW network. There’s probably no jumping into this one if you haven’t seen the first two episodes. While the acting is subpar and the pacing of the show is not done well (especially the second episode which had sections where a whole lot of nothing happened), the premise is intriguing. It’s essentially a show within a show, where characters in the show watch a show called Cult which doles out clues to a rash of disappearances and crimes happening to the main characters, most notably the disappearance of the protagonist’s brother who had strong connections to the obsessed fans of the show within the show. It’s a little confusing to try and explain, but I think that’s why I like it so far. Plus it’s not a reality show nor is it about post-war advertising executives, meth dealers, zombies, or vampires, which is a plus in my book.

Possibly due to that last point, I’m guessing this show will be cancelled very soon. Also, it is overly ambitious and probably on the wrong network, but I don’t know much about television or the politics of television so I could possibly be wrong. I was a big fan of The X-Files as a kid and I even watched the less entertaining Millennium for most of its run, and this is the first show I have seen in a while that comes close to that level of ambition.

I watched the “based on true events” film Compliance (2012) which collapses into one episode the worst parts of a real life “hoax” perpetuated by a man who forced management at a fast food restaurant chain to harass, intimidate, and sexually violate employees by posing as a police officer over the phone. Dir. Craig Zobel attempts to depict the psyche of compliance to authority figures that Stanley Milgram notoriously investigated following the Holocaust, and while he does succeed in presenting several difficult-to-watch moments, many of the characters often come across as rubes who barely stop to question what was wrong with making an employee strip over the matter of supposedly a small amount of cash missing from a purse. The actor playing the false police officer often comes across as apathetic in his line delivery, and certainly doesn’t cut the figure (or voice) of a master manipulator. Perhaps that was part of the point of the film (that this type of manipulation is easily done and ordinary people are mindless and easily bent to the will of a strong personality), but my opinion is that the cheaper route of making the audience uncomfortable was selected over the more difficult route of depicting an uncomfortable psychological truth. If the director felt that those involved truly didn’t stop to question the morality of their actions, I wanted to visually see why that was the case. The best theory I could construct from my viewing was that the obedience factor combined with the non-stop, rush nature of the fast food industry combined to make people blind to their actions. I was left wanting a better depiction of this environment. Punch Drunk Love does a far better job of depicting the grinding, psychological impact of stress and anxiety than does this film.
IMDB: 6.5
RT: 89%
Me: B-

Halloween film roundup, part 1

It’s Halloween time folks, and that means watching horror films with my wife while blowing off a myriad of work: dissertation, posters, data collection, dishes, taking out the air conditioner, etc. Below find part one of a Halloween film roundup with both new and old films that I have watched recently. If you know my wife, you know that there shall be many more films, so I plan to write again after Halloween to get to the really good stuff.

White Noise (2005), Dir. Geoffrey Sax, 101 min., on TV
Not to start off on a hack note, but I didn’t actually watch the whole film. I missed fully 25-30 minutes from the beginning, but Nicole caught me up. The premise of this film follows Michael Keaton’s character who makes contact with the spirit world, which includes his deceased wife as well as a host of malevolent spirits, the former guiding him to intervene and prevent corporeal catastrophes, the latter trying to kill everyone. While bringing the scare factor in terms of jump scenes, many of the scary monsters are blurry images which surface from a, you guessed it, white noise screen. It’s the equivalent of visual EVPs. If you grew up in the country, you probably became well acquainted with this phenomenon when trying to watch late night horror films as an adolescent, so you may have flashbacks to angrily adjusting a rotary antenna dial, which is horrifying in its own way.

B- (partial viewing)

One Missed Call (2008), Dir. Eric Valette, 87 min., on TV
Ed Burns is a detective who investigates the disappearance of his sister and a motley crew of co-op living psychology grad students. Each new target of a malevolent spirit receives a phone call from the previous victim, with a distinct ring tone, that contains both a voicemail and a timestamp with their, um, expiration date. Even at 87 minutes, this film seems a bloated and misguided. The deaths begin in the Final Destination “series of unfortunate events” style, then inexplicably turn supernatural in execution (no pun intended). The supernatural element, to put it politely, borrows very generously from The Ring (2002). The editing and storyline aside, this film was mildly entertaining despite the fact that I confused it with another (better) college campus cell phone horror film. I attempted a search, but apparently cell phone related horror is now a subgenre unto itself, so that film will remain a mystery (barring commenter assistance).


Some Guy Who Kills People (2011), Dir. Jack Perez, 97 min., DVD
Kevin Corrigan (bit player in infinite roles) plays a painfully introverted, emasculated ice cream parlor worker recently released from a mental hospital who holds a huge grudge against the high school bullies that pushed him over the edge. In a tongue-in-cheek surrealist film full of postmodern, self-aware characters, the laughs come late as much of the setup builds the drudge that is our protagonist’s life. If you can stick out the film’s sluggish first half, you’ll be mildly rewarded by the minute steps the characters take toward “fully functional.” However, for everything that works in this this film, the acting work largely falls flat and the writer and director’s versions of “hick” or “white trash” come off largely in broad strokes, ultimately pigeonholing actors: when you sift away the postmodernity, the cliche characters remain cliches.


Final Destination 5 (2011), Dir. Steven Quale, 92 min., DVD
If this film franchise is known for anything at all, it is the new and inventive ways in which accidental situations compile to a catastrophic fatality. I assume at this point that these films are requisite viewing for industrial design students, and they bear more than a passing resemblance to the “It only takes a second” insurance video series I first encountered when I went to a Found Footage Festival screening at the Empty Bottle five or six years ago.

Each film subsequent to the progenitor has elaborated slightly on the mythology, but they remain mostly static in terms of plot (note: I have [sadly?] seen them all): a psychic, or otherwise special, teenage protagonist is stricken with a vision of impending doom on some kind of vehicle, airplane, roller coaster, or other conveyance. Number five is a tour bus full of college interns at a factory stuck on a collapsing bridge. The protagonist awakes from his vision (for some reason, I think the protagonist is always a male) and saves a select few from their death. But the film is not over, oh no, not by a longshot, because Death with a capital D doesn’t like mistakes, so he is determined to correct any abnormalities in the cycle of life by terminating the survivors in new and intricate ways.

The conceit to these films seems to be that just having an otherworldly spirit strangle the shit out of a person would draw too much unwanted attention, so every death must look like a freak accident. Never fear the fact that a chain of freak accidents that kills off teenage survivors of a major accident would appear odd to any police or investigator; they apparently do not have access to a search engine that returns results for the search term “teen accident survivors die mysteriously.”

If you watch any of these films, it is for the way the directors present the gruesome and tense sequence of events leading up to a brutal “accident.” In successive films, writers and directors have gotten more creative, but the premise of the film remains the same. This latest film tries to spice things up with some witty references to previous entries, but it looks like it was far more exciting in 3D with rebar and glass shooting at your face. Sadly, 3D films give me a migraine, so I will never fully enjoy the artistic merits of this gem of cinema, but it is a worthy entry in this franchise and a strong public service announcement for Life Alert personal safety systems.


That is probably the worst of the crop, but watching good horror films (as I am coming to understand) is a progressive exercise like lifting a rock, then a slightly larger rock. As the end of the month when the horror season tapers off, expect a report of the good stuff. Until then, later ghoulies.

p.s. I bought a Star Wars pumpkin carving kit at Target that is clearly for children, so expect pictures later this month of my attempt to do what a seven-year-old can easily accomplish with minimal parental assistance.

Oscar Nominated Film Roundup (Part One?)

So I am going to try to watch as many Oscar nominated films as possible before the big day two weeks from now. Who knows what the future will bring in terms of my schedule, however, so I may not get to blog about it. If all goes well, I will be able to write at least one more post which will mean I’ve had time to watch at least one or two more films before the big night.

The King’s Speech (2010)

Dir. Tom Hooper, 121 min., in theaters

Hooper is not stranger to period pieces, directing two period television series that involve the personal trials and tribulations of great men and women of history. I was fortunate to catch a bit of Terry Gross’ interview with Tom Hooper and it may have biased my viewing of the film since Colin Firth’s (King George VI, “Bertie”) method approach to embodying the character and speech manner of George VI was fascinating. The big buzz in method acting this year centered around Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Christian Bale in The Fighter, but Firth deserves at least as much if not more credit for his performance in this film.

In a nutshell, George VI (Firth) becomes king of England in the period leading up to WWII after his self-absorbed and definitively un-Royal brother Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) abdicates to marry a divorcee. George’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Louge (Geoffrey Rush) to help remedy George’s debilitating stammer which prevents him from confidently performing his functions as the figurehead of British society.

The film benefits from an inspiring real life story, and the storytelling within the film keeps a brisk pace and lends a dire gravity to what would ordinarily be yet another Oscar-bait, palace intrigue story. Rush was much maligned for chewing up the scenery in this film, but I found his performance to be within the bounds of the character, whose flamboyant therapeutic methods were a perfect match for the actor. Touching moments abounded throughout, and I found myself genuinely in suspense of the outcome and desperately rooting for his success.

An additional bonus was the gorgeous cinematography. Most every shot was a visual treat. This would ordinarily strike me as a film that need not be seen in theaters, but viewing this film at home will not do it justice. In a bit of cinematic irony, we see characters in the film spacing themselves out from microphones only to have the camera bossily push its way into the faces of Firth and Rush. Dividing the screen into thirds, the film presents close ups that juxtapose visually intriguing patterned backdrops with Firth’s (and Rush’s) pained facial expressions.  One of my favorite releases of 2010.


The Social Network (2010)

Dir. David Fincher, 120 min., on DVD

Two things: First, just because it’s about Facebook doesn’t mean it will be interesting or that I’ll care. Second, no one talks like this in real life.

Going from a touching rendition of one man’s brutally difficult struggle to be heard to a Aaron Sorkin script hardly seems fair to this film, but life isn’t usually fair, as the characters of The Social Network find out.

If you have to explain to me why I should believe that the dialogue you’re presenting to me is believable as human intelligible speech then perhaps it needs to be toned down (“Having a conversation with you is exhausting. It’s like dating a stairmaster”–just one instance of many awkwardly explanatory lines).   If Sorkin has tried to prove one thing with his writing, it’s that people hash out ideas in fast-paced, borderline maniacal speech sprints that shove rapid-fire witty retorts down your throat. Putting my dislike of Sorkin’s view of the world aside (if I can), the film still was a disappointment to me, perhaps due to excessive buildup.

The Social Network is less the story of Facebook and more the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and the film really struggles to come to some conclusions about his character. The events that happen throughout the course of the film were mostly window dressing for a character analysis of, as the film’s closing captions tell us, the world’s youngest billionaire. As such, everything has to be extreme: extreme work sessions, extreme Harvard snobbery, extreme coincidences (Zuckerberg happens to move in next door to Sean Parker, Napster creator played well by Justin Timberlake) and, of course, extreme partying (a zip line from the chimney into the pool, really? It’s like a Mountain Dew commercial, a beverage which was product placed right into the movie, EXTREEEEEMMMMEEEEE DUDE!).

In a very non-critical appraisal, I just wasn’t feeling the film. I again admit that I dislike Sorkin’s unique style of writing, but that wasn’t the only thing bothering me. Most of the reviews I read/heard were praising this film for making a deposition interesting, but it just wasn’t. The two depositions could have been struck from the film for all I care, as the storyline proceeded in chronological order anyway and didn’t need any added layers of commentary telling me when to feel what. Why were they included? I guess for more Zuckerberg character development.

Was the timing right for a biopic of Zuckerberg either? Where is this source material coming from? Like the litigators in the film, is someone picking through the Harvard Crimson for this stuff? There were a lot of wasted opportunities for commentary on the ways that Facebook has changed our lives (with the notable exception of a great relationship status message bit). This film was less a study of the triumph of a megalithic social networking site than a character study on why Mark Zuckerberg is an ass (with one lawyer at the end regrettably spelling it all out for us: “You’re not an asshole…you’re just trying to so hard to be one”). I don’t know many billionaires, but I’m guessing that being an ass is par for the course, and I didn’t need a two hour lesson in why that’s the case.


Restrepo (2010)

Dirs. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 93 min. (unofficial), on Netflix Instant

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes that “a true war story isn’t moral.” Hetherington and Junger’s Restrepo tries to buck that trend by interjecting a lot of sentimentality and positive story trajectories into their film. However, as a documentary, whose to say that isn’t the way the story went?

Firstly, the only way you can really review a film like this and criticize the artistic merits of the film is to first separate the subject from the presentation. There’s no shortage of respect for the sacrifice of armed service members here, which is really the only way you can tell the story. However, along with an accurate representation of modern warfare and the struggles that our soldiers face fighting in Afghanistan, there are some disturbing undertones of how the story is presented.

This film comes off like a gnomon, leaving me with a sense that something more profound is missing from the presentation; perhaps out of respect for the sacrifices made by the soldiers, or perhaps to mitigate the senselessness of war. In either case, the filmmakers do themselves no favors by holding back. Surely the brutality of war is well represented in the film, but the sanctimonious justifications of the soldiers is not, as one would expect, thrown into sharp relief with the hopelessness of their fight. It seems like everything the soldiers in this film built will fall apart, but the film tries to go out on a high note, which I felt was undeserved given the climate surrounding the Afghanistan war this year.

I’m not sure my full attention was arrested by this film either. In terms of subject matter, the film comes off as disorganized and thrown together (dates might have been helpful in laying out the storyline). Perhaps this was a commentary on disorganized nature of human conflict and war.

However, the film ultimately redeems itself in the raw footage that the intrepid filmmakers were able to capture and put together. Funded by Nat Geo, this film (as in all of their projects) has a “being there” quality that makes it worth the experience. As a closing thought, this really is an experiential documentary, focusing on putting you in the shoes of the subjects and leaving the explication of the issues for post-viewing homework.


Bad action movie roundup

Hi all. As you probably know by now, in between wasting time on the internet and watching Blackhawks/Cubs/World Cup related programming, I watch any number of bad movies that are not really worthy of a full review. If you know Nicole, you know that she is in love with bad movies, and we kind of push each other to watch ultra terrible films. Here are some of the stink bombs that I watched recently that I felt you might enjoy mini-reviews for:

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

My students begged me to watch First Blood (1982) when we discussed the Vietnam War last semester, but I made them watch Platoon (1986) which I should not even mention in the same sentence together.

Psychologically damaged vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) reprises his prior role, except this time he’s going back to ‘Nam. Why they couldn’t find a soldier who didn’t freak out and murder an entire small town Sheriff’s department, who can say? The U.S. army needs Rambo to rescue some POW’s. The only problem: some pencil pushing bureaucrat doesn’t want to start another war by murdering a whole bunch of Vietnameese national troops in their own country. Can’t those liberals in government ever get anything right?

After kicking ass for a while and firing what seems like three hundred rockets from an attack chopper, Rambo saves the day, telling that Washington bureaucrat to “find them [POW’s], or I’ll find you.” And do what, John Rambo, exactly? I know, let’s kill the whole government, that’s the answer! John Rambo for president.

If you can make it through the 80’s style patriotism and horrible Asian stereotypes, there are a few cheesy action shot payoffs. Better pick up a case of beer with this movie though.


Alien Hunter (2003)

At first, I thought this was some kind of SciFi Channel original, but it seems like a theatrical release, though I couldn’t find evidence of that either. It scored an ominous “N/A” on, something I have never seen in my life. That would seem to suggest that it was never reviewed, which leads me to the conclusion that this was a case of direct to DVD.

Julian Rome (James Spader, whoa, bad move my friend) is an ex-SETI member who gets called to the South Pole to investigate an alien ship that got hauled into a hydroponic corn experimentation facility (why grow corn at the South Pole? Why the hell not I guess). To make a long plot short, the aliens have a virus that will kill all life on earth, even the super corn, if it ever escapes. How do we know this? Somehow the Roswell conspiracy and a crazy bananas theory about how these aliens wiped out a civilization on Mars eons ago (how this is known by the humans is never mentioned, surprise surprise) are forwarded as reasons to nuke the whole facility. The rest of the movie is not worth mentioning, as it just gets stupider.

Oh, and I might point out that I was expecting some battle scenes between warrior aliens and soldiers (as the title would suggest) but the alien turns out to be peaceful and some dick shoots him dead while he’s trying to give James Spader the ultimate knowledge of the universe. Whoopsie daisy!


The Condemned (2007)

Stone Cold Steve Austin is on death row for a black ops mission gone wrong, abandoned by those jerks in government (he and Rambo should start a support group). Just let the military run things already. If history has taught us anything it’s that handing control of all foreign and domestic affairs over to a military despot is the only logical solution.

Anyway, this is basically the Richard Connell story “The Most Dangerous Game” done up again as a live webcast where people can watch violent criminals kill each other for sport. Last one alive wins freedom and some cash, only the whole thing is basically rigged and the U.S. law enforcement system is too locked up in bureaucratics to do anything to stop it. The manhunting plot has been done to death, and once something is spoofed by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it should be dead, but it wasn’t, and the movie exists. By the way, Austin cannot act at all. He did a much better job in the squared circle than this movie, by far.


The Scorpion King (2002)

Dwane Johnson plays the title role of an assassin for hire that gets involved in a simplistic plot that is almost a direct copy of Conan the Barbarian (1982). I’m not sure if the writers or directors did that on purpose as a kind of tongue and cheek allusion. One would hope so, as it cuts a little to close to the bone to be a coincidence.

The movie is solid action wise, with a lot of Sam Raimi style fight sequences that fans of cheese will enjoy. The plot and acting, both terrible as you might expect. There are the typical pre-civilization action characters: a thief/trickster, a crackpot inventor (who invents gunpowder, WTF!?! come on, really?? in B.C.E. Egypt, ugh…), some women warriors in various bikini outfits, and a delightful young scamp who gets into the darnedest of situations. The antagonist is basically the Sheriff of Nottingham in Egyptian clothes. Oh, and I forgot Michael Clarke Duncan, who cracks some skulls. I’m sorry, but he is just awesome, no matter what anyone says.

The special effects get worse as the story progresses, so don’t look for a knockout final battle. The movie as whole just fizzles slowly out of existence, but I think it’s on cable fifty or so times a week so you can catch it then if you’re desperate to know which side wins the ultimate battle for the non-existent, anachronistic Egyptian civilization.


Well, that’s it for the bad action movie roundup. For future movies, I will try to avoid any titles that star former wrestlers. I had some out of town obligations, but I will hopefully be up for writing a review of Crime and Punishment this week so as to try to get some classy material up on this blog.

Next up in the film department: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant