Friday, January 22, 2010

Big Fish (2003)

Movie quotes:
"She likes music."
- Amos (Danny DeVito), with his obscure yet cherished once-a-month fact supplied to Young Edward Bloom (about the girl he loves)

"It was that night I discovered that most things you consider evil or wicked are simply lonely and lacking in social niceties."
- Young Edward Bloom

"I was 18. He was 28. Turns out that was a big difference."
- Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter)

Senior Ed Bloom (Albert Finney): You are in for a surprise.
Will Bloom (Billy Crudup): Am I?
Senior Ed Bloom: Havin' a kid changes everything. There's burping, the midnight feeding, and the changing.
Will Bloom: You do any of that?
Senior Ed Bloom: No. But I hear it's terrible.

At a glance:
Big Fish is Tim Burton's sweet fantasy about a storyteller who charms everyone he meets – except for his own son

Our review (with spoilers):
Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor as a young man, and Albert Finney as an older man) is a born storyteller. He can’t tell it like it is; each story has gobs of wild fantasy weaved in. There’s always an element of truth, but it’s difficult to ascertain. That’s why the people around him love him – except for his son Will (Billy Crudup), who feels like he has never really known who his father is. The situation was exacerbated by Edward’s job as a traveling salesman. Will rejects Edward’s wild tales as useless nonsense, until, late in his father’s life, a medical tragedy forces him to explore further. What he discovers is that his dad was actually a special man who touched many lives in his travels.

The bulk of the movie follows young Edward as he relives his stories. We meet spiders and giants, werewolves and circus freaks, mythical perfect towns, and a monstrous metaphorical fish. It’s all told through director Tim Burton’s unique skewed perspective.

It’s a strange, unique, and beautiful film, accessible to all (including children), yet it addresses difficult, emotional, ‘adult’ subjects like true love and death. Analytical people may be confused or frustrated by not knowing where ‘truth’ stop and fantasy begins, but if you can go along for the ride, Big Fish delivers a whopper of emotion and a powerful redemption story.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Plays to Burton's strengths as an auteur of fantasy colliding with reality."
- Christopher Smith (Bangor Daily News [Maine])

"Burton has crafted a sweet yet bizarre film seeming at times like 'The Twilight Zone' in Oz."
- Steve Crum (Kansas City Kansan)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

Movie quotes:
"You’re so pretty. You’re exactly what I want to look like in fifteen years."
- Natalie (to Alex)

Ryan: You know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet just for a second?
Natalie: Yes.
Ryan: Right. Well, I don’t.

At a glance:
Geaorge Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a dedicated air traveler who shuns commitments until his ‘empty backpack’ life is affected by love and family, and a sudden need for companionship

Our review (with spoilers):
When I was about to embark recently on at overseas trip, I agonized about having to go through those security checkpoints. I always seem to be so slow to prepare before and to gather all my belongings after – and I can’t seem to work out what goes in the trays, what stays out, and what has to be taken off. And I’m always forgetting to remove some metal object from a pocket or wrist. When I got to LA, I noticed there were two lines: one for casual travelers and one for seasoned travelers. I got on the casual line but I tracked a confident guy in the seasoned line: the way he grabbed three trays, not two; the way he almost slammed the trays down on the conveyor (that seemed to be important); exactly what he removed and how, and where he placed the removals. There’s a similar scene in Up in the Air, where we watch seasoned traveler Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) as he seamlessly preps for security.

Ryan is more than a seasoned traveler. He’s one of the most traveled travelers in the world. He travels 322 days a year, and he always loyally flies American Airlines. He’s about to be the youngest ever American Airlines 10 million miler – a personal goal that means way too much for him. When he touches down, his job is as a professional firer – he flies in fire batches of employees, and then flies out. Needless to say, Ryan’s company is one of the few in the USA that is experiencing a boom.

Ryan has no family, no commitments, and virtually no home. He lives in the air. He is so content with his lifestyle that he pushes his way of life in lectures, and he’s writing a self-help book called "What’s in your Backpack?" But Ryan’s cocoon is about to be punctured. First, he begins a slightly more than casual relationship with fellow traveler Alex (Vera Famiga). Ryan begins to develop stronger feelings toward Alex that go beyond their shared love of the air and their attraction to customer loyalty and credit cards. At the same time, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a sharp young consultant, is about to convert the army of flying terminators into desk jockeys who fire people remotely using teleconferencing. Ryan’s boss Craig (Jason Bateman) is already convinced that this change should be made, but he first asks Ryan to take Natalie with him on the job to show her how it works.

Up in the Air, expertly directed by the talented Jason Reitman, presents the contrast of youth and experience, family and freedom, job security and job termination, and extreme idealism versus extreme pragmatism. These broad stroke themes are not preached, but are hidden within a well-written story peppered with moments both touching and hilarious.

Clooney has shaped his career by playing handsome, emotionally challenged characters, but there is always an inner depth to the personas he creates. Outward, Ryan appears to be callous; we suspect, and the not-so-subtle signs are there, that inside he realizes he is missing something. The story is ambiguous enough to leave us wondering just how much effect these events had on this man, and we leave wondering whether or not he will continue to fly above us in the night.

Rating:  3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It's refreshing to hear characters that display some verbal dexterity and a script that moves cleverly along, entertaining us as it actually works to develop its characters and themes."
- Beth Accomando (

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Moon (2009)

At a glance:
Sam Rockwell excels in a challenging role as the slowly-going-mad man trapped in a long-term solo assignment on a moon base

Our review (with spoilers):
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) works alone in a small base on the moon, collecting helium for a global energy company. From inside his control center, he checks the status of three automated mining harvesters. For company, he has Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a computer sidekick who attends to his culinary and technical needs. He occupies his time by carving intricate miniature cities from wood, tending to his plants, running on a treadmill, and sending and receiving video messages to his comely wife and young daughter back on earth. It’s understandable that he’s going crazy: he is two weeks away from the end of a too-long three year stint at the base. He starts to see imaginary people, and this distraction causes him to crash his lunar rover. When he awakens, Gerty is attending to him in the infirmary and is using Eliza-style psychology to assure him that he is okay. When Sam is back on his feet, he gets curious about why one of the harvesters has stopped working. What he finds when he investigates further is something he was not supposed to ever see, and it will change his perspective on the world forever (I know, that sounds like a tagline, but I want to be careful what I say here).

Rockwell’s soliloquy starring role tasks him to create a number of different yet linked personas. What a great opportunity for him – and you can imagine that a large number of male leads would have been clamoring to be cast in this part.

Clint Mansell’s evocative music forms the perfect backdrop for this unusual saga.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"This is science fiction at its stimulating best."
- David Stratton (At the Movies [Australia])

Funny People (2009)

Movie quotes:
"I masturbate so much with hand cream, I forget people use it for shit other than masturbating. Literally, when I'm in public and I see someone pull out hand cream, I'm like "This guy's about to jerk off!""
- Ira Wright

"I know you sound like a regular joe where you come from, but here, I keep…thinking you’re going to be…torturing James Bond later."
- George Simmons to a thick-accented doctor

Clarke: Little fucka, little fucka, off to a big fucka, then he’s gonna go down to another big fucka, I hate that big fucka…
George: Where are the black guys?
[Clarke and George, watching Aussie Rules football]

At a glance:
There’s plenty of funny and raunchy jokes to cover up the maudlin sentimentality of Funny People

Our review (with spoilers):
George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a phenomenally successful comedian who has made millions, but he has no friends and no love in his life. He blew his one chance at true love when he cheated on Laura (Leslie Mann). When he finds out that he is dieing from a blood disease, he begins to re-evaluate his car-collecting, groupie-banging philosophy. He takes young comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Ira is an employee but is still the closest thing George has to a friend. Complications set in when George’s experimental medicines cure him. He sees this as a second chance in life, and buoyed on by Laura’s dissatisfaction with her marriage, he makes a play for her – despite the fact that she has two daughters and a crazed Australian husband (played with hilarious vigor by Eric Bana) who will kill George if he finds out they are having an affair.

Adam Sandler has created the perfect movie – in some ways. For Sandler fans, they will find him hilarious (I suppose). For Sandler non-fans, he seems to be playing the exact person that we have come to know and not love: a guy who is successful but not very funny. It seemed to me that Sandler gave all of the funnier lines to the other comics – and there are many great comics in the film. This movie has that same feel as The Last Action Hero: a big star trying to parody himself. (It’s also overlong like The Last Action Hero). It doesn’t always work, but there are so many (mostly raunchy) laughs that you can forgive when the romance or schmaltz doesn’t work. Bana is particular is great – as a transplanted American in Australia, I loved the scene when he explains Aussie Rules football in his own unique terms. Overall, I’ve given it a high rating because of its ambitions, even if it fails sometimes in the storytelling.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Funny People has some very funny moments but don't expect a joke fest. And don't expect a tight film either. At two and a half hours, it is not one but two films... and at least one of them shouldn't have been made."
- Giles Hardie (Sydney Morning Herald)

"The first part of the film is terrific and very funny. Apatow perfectly captures the ruthless competitiveness of young comics."
- Cosmo Landesman (Sunday Times [UK])

Godspeed (2009)

Movie quotes:
"There’s a darkness born of the centuries – born from the pain it takes to live the day…It courses through everybody’s blood – I guess even mine."
- Sarah

At a glance:
The Alaskan wilderness is the setting for this intense, sometimes violent indie thriller about murder, revenge, and how ‘religious’ men use god to further their own agenda

Our review (with spoilers):
A faith healer in Alaska is devastated when his family is murdered. He tucks himself away in the woods and half-lives, still hoping that perhaps someday the case will be solved, but not really doing anything about it. But the event enters back into his life when he is visited by Sarah (Courtney Halverson), the teenage daughter of a sick woman he tried to help.

The original title of Godspeed (Bloody Revenge) more accurately reflects the film’s genre. It is a revenge flick; no doubt about that. However, writer/actors Joseph McKelheer (Charlie) and Cory Knauf (Luke) have shown that they realize that adding layered detail to even the most basic story framework can make for a successful screenplay. While the revenge aspects somewhat overshadow anything else, there is still much thought-provoking interaction. For example, did Charlie’s healing powers stop working because of the presence of Luke in the room? Did that negative energy cancel out his positive energy?

The screenplay, written by Knauf, McKelheer, and director Robert Saitzyk, has moments of beauty. Most of the best contemplative lines are delivered by Sarah. Knauf shows that he has prodigious writing talent – perhaps moreso than his acting talent. Or maybe he just needs to hone the latter. I had the feeling he dragged the movie down a little with the too-slow pacing of his delivery. He needed to vary this occasionally. Still, he does create a character who has evil power, so maybe I’m being too harsh.

 While Knauf and McKelheer show off the writing talents, the acting talents are flashed by Halverson. There is power in a woman’s desire for a man, and perhaps this manifests itself most intensely in a young girl’s first crush. Halverson is tasked with bringing this to the screen. She does so with ease, and she also narrates the beautifully scripted emotions of the film – again with a mix of depth and naivete.

Rating:  2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Saitzyk’s direction has a way of holding a tight grip on its audience."
- Cinevegas

Extract (2009)

Movie quotes:
Dean: Look, you know what you need to do?
Joel: I don’t need any more drugs.
Dean: Dude, I know I kid about a lot, and I’m a little bit of a character, but I’m serious right now. This is real advice, okay? So I want you to listen to me. You should try smoking a little pot.
Joel: That’s a drug.
Dean: It’s not a drug. It’s a flower.

At a glance:
It’s a match made in heaven: Mike Judge (Office Space) and Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) team up to provide a tale that is high on quirkiness and perhaps a bit low on laugh-out-loud moments

Our review (with spoilers):
If you are familiar with the television series Arrested Development, then you already know that there is no one better for playing the sarcastic straight man to a parade of quirky sidekicks than Jason Bateman. Here, Bateman is Joel, the struggling owner of a profit-challenged factory staffed by quirky characters. When they are not bickering or accusing each other of theft, they produce concentrated fruit and nut extracts. Although Joel has plenty of problems involving the business, probably his most pressing issue is his ongoing sexless marriage, and a possible solution: his new-found attraction to Cindy (Mila Kunis), a young woman who is enamored with him but perhaps has ulterior motives.

The funniest scenes involve the byplay between Joel and Dean (Ben Affleck). Affleck shows his comedic talents playing a new-age druggie bartender, and Bateman, in these scenes, is closest to the hilarious role he played on Arrested Development, where he would team up with eccentric characters and respond to every line with a comeback of his own. But most of the other supposed humorous moments in the film are jokes about promiscuity. Most of these jokes are not that funny, and although the cast of characters are quirky, they don’t elicit laughs.

Writer/director Mike Judge achieved tremendous cult success with his little film called Office Space back in 1991. Office Space probably had broader appeal because it focused on the downtrodden office workers, whereas the ‘hero’ here is in management.

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Smart and affable, but not laugh-out-loud funny. A comedy shouldn't be as grounded as this. Since it's coming from Mike Judge, you expect it to fly."
- Christopher Smith (Bangor Daily News [Maine])

Monday, January 4, 2010

Red Rock West (1993)

Movie quotes:
[Michael knocks out hired killer]
Suzanne: What should I do?
Michael: If I were you…I’d get a divorce.

Suzanne: Don’t you like me?
Michael: Yeah, I like you.
Suzanne: Then what’s the matter?
Michael: Just try to make a point of staying away from married women.
Suzanne: Why? Marriage is just a state of mind.
Michael: Not in Texas.
Suzanne: We’re not in Texas

At a glance:
Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle and J. T. Walsh are shining stars in this dark, entertaining western noir with a twist-laden plot peppered with mistaken identity, hired killers, and con artists

Our review (with spoilers):
A down on his luck roughneck (Nicolas Cage) travels 1200 miles from Texas to Wyoming for a job but is turned down. His money gone, he seaches still further in the small town of Red Rock. There, he is mistaken for someone else by local barmen Wayne (J. T. Walsh). Since this someone is there for a job, Michael goes along with it, then finds out that the job is to murder Wayne’s wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). When Michael confronts Suzanne, she offers him double the money to do away with Wayne. For a while, it looks like Michael is going to pick up some easy money for nothing, but before he can escape from Red Rock, things get way more complicated – the real hit man (Dennis Hopper) shows up, and Michael is right in the middle of it all.

As Michael, Nicolas Cage gets to dip his toes into the water of corruptability while remaining pure. He has an affair with a married woman, but is that still wrong when her husband is trying to kill her? He goes along with a plan to steal money from the husband’s office safe, but only because the wife says it belongs to her. He refuses to take any money that was not earned, even when he is down to his last five dollars.

When I first saw Red Rock West in 1993, I was thrilled with director John Dahl, and looked forward to his future efforts. He has thrilled me again with the movies The Last Seduction (1994), Unforgettable (1996), and You Kill Me (2007), and he has moved into television to direct episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad, two of my favorite series.

Rating:  3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"It's a brilliant noir movie that seems to understand the inner workings of film noir, rather than just paying tribute to it."
- Jeffrey M. Anderson (Combustible Celluloid)