Saturday, February 27, 2010

Food Inc. (2008)

Movie quotes:
"A culture that just views a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever creative design a human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals with its community and other cultures in the community of nations with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling-type mentality."
- Steve (Farmer at Polyface Farms)

"Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect."
- from film’s closing lines

At a glance:
Robert Kenner’s fascinating, potentially life-changing documentary pulls back the veil shielding the destructive practices of the handful of multinational corporations who control the American food industry

Our review (with spoilers):
I delayed my viewing of Food Inc. as long as I could, for quite some time, because I knew a bit about what it would reveal, and I knew it would force me to re-evaluate what me and my family eat.

No more chicken will be consumed after viewing the way most chicken are now engineered with big breasts and brittle bones – they often cannot support their own body weight. They are crowded beyond belief in warehouses with no windows.

No more beef will be consumed after realizing that a handful of major meat packers control the market, and that e-coli, which can kill quickly, can also spread efficiently because of a system that shuns diversity. The methods big business try to use to combat disease is to ‘wash’ the meat with ammonia.

Many other supermarket items are not what they appear. In America, corn is used in 90% of products sold in the grocery. Foods with salt, sugar, and fat (the three trigger items craved by an unhealthy human) are heavily subsidized, so that fruit and veggies keep going up in price, while the fast food hamburger keeps getting cheaper.

Perhaps the most tragic story was of the beautiful, healthy 2 year old boy who got e-coli from a hamburger and died 12 days later. But what also hurt me deeply was seeing what Monsanto was doing to any farmer who dared to plant a non-Monsanto soybean, or to the man who was helping these farmers clean and reuse their seeds. At the time of filming, Monsanto controlled 90% of the soybean mark with their ‘Roundup Ready’ bean (it can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup and will carry on living while all other plants and weeds die).

Rating:  3.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Like a 21st-century updating of The Jungle ... Food, Inc. is infuriating and disheartening, as it introduces us to the unpleasant verities of eating and the cynical rationalizations of those who purport to feed us."
- Philip Martin (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

Movie quotes:
Clive Park: Very difficult... very difficult...
Larry Gopnik: Well, I... I'm sorry, but I... what do you propose?
Clive Park: Passing grade.
Larry Gopnik: No no, I...
Clive Park: Or perhaps I can take the mid-term again. Now I know it covers mathematics.
Larry Gopnik: Well, the other students wouldn't like that, would they, if one student gets to retake the test till he gets a grade he likes?
Clive Park: Secret test.
Larry Gopnik: No, I'm afraid...
Clive Park: Hush-hush.

"That's right, things aren't so bad. Look at the parking lot, Larry. Just look at that parking lot."
- Rabbi Scott

At a glance:
A Serious Man, another original entry in the Coen Brother’s oeuvre, uses black humor to prove the futility of contemplating the meaning of your life

Our review (with spoilers):
Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a serious man, and his life is about to unravel, much to his surprise. His tenure is jeopardized by a student who offers him a bribe, and by anonymous letters written to the tenure committee. His wife informs him that things have not been good for some time, and, of course, she has developed a friendship and a bit more with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). It’s only logical that Larry move out so as not to disrupt the lives of the two children, one of whom, Danny (Aaron Wolff) is about to be barmitzvahed. Normally, it would be fortunate to be having these kinds of problems and to be Jewish as well, for the Jews can turn to their strong communal faith, and to the shared wisdoms of their rabbis, for guidance (although in this case, the only help Larry receives from his rabbis is in the form of obscure metaphors about parking lots, or unrelated anecdotes about goy teeth.

The Coen brothers have created a wonderful anti-Hollywood movie. Unconcerned with the narrative or with any kind of standard, expected beginning, middle or end, they instead lead you on a journey through a slice of life / collection of vignettes. Some of the best parts of the journey are populated by the lovely, softly deep, mesmerizing voice of Melamed. And, as usual, the Coens have assembled an unusual looking and unusually talented cast of actors (another standout is Sari Lennick as Larry’s wife Judith).

There’s a higher level of accessibility to this Coen Brothers' offering. We can all relate to how that unpredictable thing called life throws random events at us and tasks us to deal with them as best we can – which sometimes is not very well.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"If there is a moral to this story, it is that trying to make sense of life is a foolish endeavor doomed to failure."
- Robert Roten (Laramie Movie Scope)

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Vicious Kind (2009)

Movie quotes:
Donald: Trespass on my property again, and I will shoot you.
Caleb: Better work on your aim, then.

"I swear to god, if you fuck him up, I will dig a hole, and I will put you in it!"
- Caleb to Emma

"You alright, Caleb? Never seen you throw a hammer like that."
- J.T. (Vittorio Brahm)

"I just wish I could get over this…strange compulsion to protect Peter, you know, because…the only way I know how to do that is to…to hurt him."
- Caleb

At a glance:
The Vicious Kind is an intriguing character study of two brothers: one a bitter misogynist, and the other a naïve, puppy-dog virgin – and of the woman who is a love interest to both of them

Our review (with spoilers):
Caleb (Adam Scott) plays the brutal, dominant big brother to his virgin sibling Peter (Alex Frost). Caleb isn’t very happy about anything; but mostly, he’s angry at all women, since his girlfriend just cheated on him. Now Peter has a new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow) who looks just like Caleb’s old one. Caleb sees it as his mission to save Peter from getting hurt like he did, but he’s also intensely attracted to Emma. His moods range from bitingly sarcastic to weeping to adoring to threatening and aggressive. It isn’t helping that he hasn’t slept in over a week.

The Vicious Kind is all about studying Caleb’s character, wondering what kind of a man he is, wondering what is going on inside his head and what he is capable of. For a while, Caleb’s character is intriguing shades of gray and black. Then it appears that he’s just psychotic. Then he seems to get a better grasp of reality for awhile. As his obsession with Emma becomes more transparent, we can see his appeal. He’s the wild, crazy brother, the big risk, the outlaw. Emma can see it too, and although she maintains her disgust on the outside, we know she finds Caleb very appealing.

Finally, without giving too much away, I’m not completely convinced at the plausibility in the path on which the Vicious Kind leads its characters. But then, it’s all about the journey anyway, and the journey is intriguing. Writer/Director Lee Toland Krieger makes it so by wringing sincere, stirring performances from his cast.

Rating: 3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"What lifts this trenchant dramedy out of the ordinary are Krieger's ear for dialogue and Adam Scott's breakthrough performance as a family's black sheep seemingly intent on earning that bad rap."
- Pam Grady (Boxoffice Magazine)

Transporter 2 (2005)

Movie quotes:
Audrey: And thank you for what you did.
Frank: For what?
Audrey: For turning the car around so that Jack wouldn’t have to see us fighting. You really know kids, don’t you?
Frank: I know fights.

At a glance:
Jason Statham returns as the driver with many talents (especially regarding fighting) in this mostly fun sequel peppered with inventive fight choreography and sappy dramatic scenes

Our review (with spoilers):
Frank (Jason Statham) the Transporter’s seemingly innocent assignment to ferry a 10 year old boy to and from school suddenly becomes a lot more stressful when the boy is infected with a deadly virus. And why would baddie Gianni Chellini (Alessandro Gassman) do such a heartless thing? Simple – the target is his father, Jefferson Billings (Matthew Modine), a leading security expert. By infecting Billings just before a big security conference, Chellini can wipe out hundreds of industry leaders in one evil night.

Frank’s job is simple: get the antidote, save the boy, save his dad, save the other business leaders, and save the mom – and avoid sleeping with the mom, despite her willingness and vulnerability. Meanwhile, he has to avoid cars, trucks, punches, knives, swords, syringes, and bullets.

With Transporter 2, the co-directors credits from the first film have been abandoned, and we now can determine that Corey Yuen is responsible for the excellent fight/stunt choreography, whilst Louis Leterrier can take credit for the sappy dialogue (always delivered over a sickening, soft-core soundtrack – in case we can’t tell that people are speaking to each sincerely on our own). For his part, Yuen tries to top the first film by going over the top – in one early scene, Frank’s car flies from floor to floor of adjoining buildings with a decidedly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang quality – a quality that thankfully was missing from the first film. There is also a sexy yet emaciated sick female baddie, played by Amber Valletta in a kind of dark-eye-makeup homage, perhaps, to Daryl Hannah’s character Pris from Blade Runner.

The fight scenes are top notch; they usually feature one key gimmick or limitation (for example, in one scene, Frank neutralizes 6  bodyguards, all with guns, before any of them can fire a shot; or another memorable scene where Frank’s only weapon is a fire hose).

Rating:  2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Besides a fun script and never-a-dull-moment directing, Jason Statham really deserves praise for his screen presence. Expect mindless action and have a great time."
- Ross Anthony (Hollywood Report Card)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Avatar (2009)

Movie quotes:

"Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn't be too hard for you."
- Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)

At a glance:
Avatar creates a stunningly original and beautiful 3-D paradise, then sadly destroys it with fire, noise, and cardboard caricatures

Our review (with spoilers):
At 175 minutes, Avatar is lengthy enough to be two movies. In fact, it basically is two movies. In this imaginative universe, a mining company is tasked to take what they need from a pristine land and to eliminate any indigenous people that get in their way. The first two hours, although burdened with a script that fires off every movie cliché and classic situation one after the other, still is a triumph of 3-D visuals over substance. This beautiful world is populated by computer-generated indigenous tribes and visited by humans (inside indigenous-lookalike shells called Avatars). One man, Sully (Sam Worthington) seems the least likely to infiltrate this simpler, spiritual culture – after all, he’s a former marine. But his warrior skills come in handy, and he slowly warms to the parts of the culture that worship the forest and the trees. But Sully is conflicted. Even as he is falling in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and the Na’vi culture, he is also delivering intelligence to General Quaritch (Stephen Lang, in a strikingly effective role), the no-nonsense former jarhead in charge of strong-armed military operations for the mining company.

There are emotional hooks galore in the first two-thirds of Avatar. Sully in the human world is confined to a wheelchair; there is great joy in seeing him within his Avatar body for the first time, running, jumping, unencumbered. His slow transformation into one of the indigenous people is somewhat less effective. The concept of creating lab-hatched indigenous bodies and then controlling them via mind links has many more possibilities than were realized here. This film would have benefited from a bit more juxtaposition. Rather than spending the last hour in a long, loud, fire fight, mostly between outmatched tribes bouncing poison arrows off armored helicopters, what if some of the baddies, like Quaritch, were forced to live as an Avatar? Could Quaritch have reached an understanding of the Na’vi culture? And if not, wouldn’t it have been satisfying to see the people whom he devastated deliver his just desserts? The emotional punch from a redemption story like that would have been much stronger than from all guns blazing. Still, this is the price we pay for the way movies are made in Hollywood today. With an estimated budget of 280 million dollars, director James Cameron would not be allowed to take any risks. He has to create a product that will have action, action, action (this ensures strong overseas box office) and he must play it safe, or he would never be able to get that kind of backing. To his credit, he did achieve the goal of beating all existing box office records (besting his own Titanic). No matter what else you think, this guy knows how to make an epic blockbuster.

Avatar could have been a much quieter masterpiece. But let’s take it for what it is. It is still a landmark film for its visuals. And most people will ignore the script deficiencies and just enjoy the epic scale. It’s easier to do so when you get more of an appreciation for the technological leaps that were made to make this groundbreaking film. Check out this link for more information on the making of

Rating: 2.75 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"As superbly rendered as his 3D world is, Cameron has populated it with characters who are strictly 2D. And sometimes not even that."
- Jim Schembri (The Age [Australia])

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Movie quotes:
Inspector Lestrade: In another life, Mr. Holmes, you would have made an excellent criminal.
Sherlock Holmes: Yes, and you an excellent policeman.

Irene Adler: Why are you always so suspicious?
Sherlock Holmes: Should I answer chronologically or alphabetically?

At a glance:
Guy Ritchie stamps his stylized cartoon violence onto Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this visually stunning, exciting re-imagination

Our review (with spoilers):
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) used to be a man who used his brain almost exclusively to solve crime. Sidekick Watson (Jude Law) has varied from a likable, bumbling sidekick to an important member of the team, and is usually a sobering balance to Holmes’ addictions, obsessions, and overindulgence. The typical Holmes/Watson characterizations are thrown aside in this modernized remake/reimaging of the classic tales. Holmes still uses his copious deductive talents, but he also doesn’t mind using that same logical mind to chart a series of punches in bare-knuckle boxing. Fortunately, Downey’s diminutive stature allows this to work – if Holmes was a tall, scary fighter, he wouldn’t seem like Holmes at all anymore. Watson is still a calming influence, but he is dapper, almost suave, and he also doesn’t mind a good Batman and Robin style fight. In fact, this version of Holmes/Watson is probably closer to a 19th century Batman/Robin teaming than anyone would care to admit. Purists will be disappointed, but in this age of film remakes (for example, Star Trek), if you can look past the destruction of iconic characters, you can make a very good film (that really is related to them in name only). Personally, if someone wanted to see a purer form of Holmes, I would push them toward the Granada television series from the 1980s (starring Jeremy Brett). But the script is well-written for what it is trying to accomplish; Downey and Law are two of the strongest male leads in Hollywood, even if they are perhaps not the strongest box office draws.

Here, modern Holmes is pitted against evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who seemingly rises from the grave. His ambitions are large: to take over the world and kill anyone in his way. There are a couple of love interests (Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly) lurking about to make this more interesting.

The film itself is lovely to look at. The production design effectively captures the grimy, coal-stained streets of industrial London. Some striking sets include Tower Bridge, still in the process of being built, and an exciting fight with a giant in a ship-building yard.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"Essentially, this is Lethal Weapon in ye olde worlde London, which will surely have the purists up in arms, but as buddy flicks go, it's a welcome twist."
- Digital Spy

"With his reckless attitude, Downey Jr. may not be the refined Sherlock Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s conjuring, but this feisty reimagining is strikingly impressive and cements Downey’s standing as one of the best actors in Hollywood."
- Rip It Up

Knowing (2009)

At a glance:
Knowing’s weird combination of end-of-the-world fatalism and religious salvation doesn’t mesh well, but it’s still a captivating and imaginative sci-fi outing, laced with a typical ‘detached passion’ performance by Nicolas Cage

Our review (with MAJOR spoilers):
Knowing starts off with one obvious goal: to break the record for saying a little girl’s name in a movie. Previously, this record was held by Poltergeist 3 with ‘Carole Anne’. Here, it is ‘Lucinda’ that gets repeated over and over and over. This Lucinda is special. She is being whispered to, haunted, by something or someone. We can assume it could be extraterrestrials, because her whispers coincide with drawings of the future done by schoolchildren in 1959 and buried in a time capsule (and because this film is in the sci-fi genre). While all the other kids draw pictures, Lucinda covers her page from top to bottom with neat rows of numbers. Later, she is discovered with her fingers bloody from the indecipherable message she is scraping on the wall of a closet.

Flash forward to 2009, where tormented, faith-free professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) raises his 12 year old son Caleb alone, because the mother died. John’s science does not allow him to believe in heaven, but he encourages Caleb to make his own choice about such things. The capsule is opened and the children’s drawings from ’59 are distributed to the children of ’09. Caleb hears those same whispers, receives Lucinda’s numbered page, and sees a mystery man in the distance who quickly disappears.

Dad takes a closer look at those numbers and soon cracks the code. They are a series of pair of dates and death tolls. Like 9/11/01 2996 (Sept 11, 2001 – 2996 deaths). He keeps going, then suddenly drops his glass of scotch when he realizes there are three more tragedies predicted that have not yet occurred. Further research reveals that the other, seemingly random numbers are the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of each event.

Knowing is in some ways completely successful in its redemption story. In counterpoint to Signs, the hero will not save the world, just his own soul. The world, or at least humanity, is saved by another means. The middling reviews for this film do puzzle me, however, I thought it was very good pulp sci-fi, and once Cage stops being so catatonic (admittedly, this takes about half the picture), it is even compelling emotionally. For a picture of this ilk, there are many quiet moments, punctuated effectively by stunning disasters – including the short but sweet cataclysmic finale.

Rating:  2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The final message may be trite, even saccharine, but Knowing would be pretty well unbearable without it. Proyas has made a truly haunting and terrifying film."
- Evan Williams (The Australian)

The Hide (2008)

Movie quotes:
"I’m not caged. I’m not a hemmed-in man."
- Roy

At a glance:
Director Marek Losey’s freshman film is a tense character study of two men from opposite ends of the class spectrum who form a strange relationship during the short time they spend together in a claustrophobic bird-watching hide

Our review (with spoilers):
There’s the consummate clash of cultures in The Hide, a movie that takes place completely inside a bird-watching hide on mud flats somewhere in England. Stuck-up, better-than-thou ornithologist Roy Tunt (Alex Macqueen) has his quest to tick off every known species of bird interrupted by David (Phil Campbell), a rough, lower class mystery man with an obviously troubled soul (even if we weren’t privy to his bizarre flashbacks). At first, Roy seems arrogant yet innocent, and David, gulping from a bottle of vodka and scratching his head with passion, looks like he is about to explode in anger and violence. Despite their cultural differences, they find a way to communicate and to enjoy – and need – each other’s company – although why they need each other is not immediately clear.

(Note: Do NOT read any further if you have not yet seen this film). Director Marek Losey plays with stereotypes to lead us in a certain direction, then abruptly pulls the rug out from under us. One man is obviously troubled but harmless to others. Another is hiding his sins, and, by design, is extremely dangerous.

The Hide is a bean counter’s dream. There are only two actors, and virtually the entire film takes place inside a small bird blind (hide). Losey proves that you do not need expensive sets, fireballs, or big name actors to create a mini-masterpiece.

Rating:  3 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"One claustrophobic location, two men, a relationship that shifts with the flood tide... and a film that far exceeds the limitations imposed by its low budget and small scale."
- Anton Bitel (Eye for Film)