Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Single Man

Movie Review: A Single Man

Director: Tom Ford

Reviewed: 31 July 2010

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Tom Ford's A Single Man is a luscious, color-infused or color-deprived marvel with a phenomenal lead performance from Colin Firth, who was rightfully nominated for Best Actor. Firth stars as Professor Falconer, a closeted gay man in the early 1960's (Cuban Missile Crisis looms on the televisions and radios, bomb shelters are discussed seriously) who experiences, suffers the loss of his long time partner of sixteen years, Jim, to a fatal car crash. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more apparent what Tom is experiencing without it being spelled out or a needless narration or obvious exposition characters.

Falconer's movements, studied and careful, are as precise as his words. He studies his neighbors from his bathroom; he selects his clothing with thought and care. As he journeys through his day, Ford flashes back to important moments in Falconer's relationship history, ripping him away from the day-to-day tedium of a classroom discussion or conversation.

Ford's work builds over the course of the film, as light and intensity vary depending on the emotions of a scene. In a conversation between Falconer and, say, a student, both will be shot in medium or tight close-ups, but in the interplay between both, the light and color will be dramatically different, emphasizing Falconer's detachment and the student's vibrancy.

There's much, much more to say about this film, but I will end with being incredibly moved and compelled. I could not take my eyes off of this film, and I feel that it will reward a second viewing. Powerful filmmaking and a director to watch.

Friday, July 16, 2010

From Here To Eternity

Movie Review: From Here To Eternity

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Reviewed: 16 July 2010

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2.

From Here To Eternity marks my first film starring Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and my first film (that isn't Field of Dreams) starring Burt Lancaster. It is pre-Pearl Harbor on Oahu, and Sgt. Milton Warden (Lancaster) deals with his overbearing and corrupt boss while simultaneously making time with his superior's wife (Deborah Kerr) while Pvt. Prewitt (Clift) refuses to box for the company and befriends Pvt. Mazzio (Sinatra) while romancing Lorene (Donna Reed). The film depicts the relationships, hazing, and suffering of these characters as they make their way through pre-war Hawaii.

Lancaster cuts such a figure in this film, physically and with his voice. Clift is pitch-perfect as a tormented ex-boxer who refuses to break. And Sinatra? Completely magnetic; you can't take your eyes off him when he's on screen. The musical scenes break up the film a bit, with the soliders singing the Re-Enlistment Blues at times, and the sense of place is captured beautifully; at times, Diamond Head is poking out of the background as the lovers talk on Waikiki Beach.

The Pearl Harbor attack sequence is frightening and uncertain. The story-telling works and has power. The iconic kiss on the beach with the crashing wave remains iconic. For a film of its time to depict the Army in such a negative, realistic light must have been controversial. The film crashes to a halt with serious melodrama and departures. But, it remains powerful.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Godfather

Movie Reviewed: The Godfather

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Date Reviewed: 14 July 2010

Rating: ****

I haven't seen The Godfather in many, many years, but from the opening shot (a slow zoom out on an undertaker pleading Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for justice), I was exhilarated. Coppola's film is a bona fide American classic, imbued with rich characters, unforgettable scenes, and towering performances by Brando and Al Pacino.

Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the war hero returning home for the wedding of his sister Connie's (Talia Shire). There's Fredo and Sonny Corleone, the wannabee and hothead brothers, respectively.

I cannot say enough about the opening scenes. Coppola depicts a sense of the inner and outer circles of the Corleone family, with Don Vito and Consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) peeking out at who is arriving at the wedding, commenting on motives and possible requests. Per Sicilian tradition, Don Vito must grant the requests of any man on his daughter's wedding day. Asylum is granted, horses heads are removed, and through it all, Don Vito remains a quietly lethal, yet benevolent figure, arguing against the Corleone family's involvement in the rising drug trade.

Watching the film now as a 31-year old, I was struck by how much Don Vito resembled my own grandfather (or my memories of him). Brando's raspy voice (achieved with the infamous cotton balls and a fitted mouthpiece) make understanding him challenging; his mannerisms and gestures befit a man of his fading power and age. Yet, even at the end, Don Vito's omniscience rules over every scene; he advises his son Michael after an ill-fated assassination attempt leaves Michael to enter the loathed family business.

A few words about Al Pacino. Pacino's power in this movie is his transformation from reluctant warrior into ruthless Mafia don, capable of dispatching anyone with elaborate schemes. The cross-cutting in the final scenes of the baptism and assassinations is one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen on film. Pacino is brilliant; he's degenerated into a caricature today, a bloated, abnormally red-faced histrionic shouter, but he is capable of such depth and power.

It all comes back to those first scenes: wedding celebration, dark work being done in the shadows, singing and dancing, politicians being bribed, family being hugged and welcomed, the posing of a family portrait...resonating with Michael's final, prophetic pronouncement to his ill-fated brother Fredo: "Never go against the family." Indeed.

One of the best films ever made. I will watch this film forever.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Toy Story 3

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

Director: Lee Unkrich

Reviewed: 29 June 2010

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

Toy Story was the first completely computer-animated film ever when I saw it in 1995. Now, there are more films out there, and the Pixar Renaissance has hit an amazing peak with Wall*E, Finding Nemo, and Up. Years later, Toy Story 3 picks up with the main character Andy going off to college. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) rally the familiar cast of toys together as they deal with the emotions of not being played with anymore, not being needed by a boy heading off to a different part of his life. Most of the toys end up in Sunnyside Day Care which on the surface appears to be the solution to their problems. At Sunnyside, they will be constantly played with, constantly loved because the children cycle in and out. However, Lotso, the pink bear who lords over the center, rules with an iron fist. Toys are kept in cages at night, there is no possibility of escape, and the wildest, youngest kids obliterate the newest toys, breaking them and not playing with them in an age-appropriate way. A prison break must occur, and afterwards, the question remains: What will Andy do with his toys as he leaves for college?

This film is endlessly inventive and very funny. A highlight is Ken (Michael Keaton) and Barbie's relationship, with Ken recast as a metrosexual in need of someone to appreciate his love of clothes and his Dream House. The escape sequences from Sunnyside pay off in a major way, with intricate plans and subterfuge, as well as a hilarious/creepy set of minor guard characters who aid Lotso in his plan.

The most poignant, tear-jerking moment occurs at the end when Andy passes the torch of the toys to another child. That's when I lost it. Passing on beloved toys to another kid packed an emotional punch for me. The subtext in the film involves the nature of play. To play with toys is to involve yourself in a world of your own creating.

The thing I have always loved in the Toy Story universe is the collision of the toys--Woody the cowboy with Buzz the spaceman, all friends with Mr. Potatohead. In my basement and backyard, the Star Wars characters conspired with the G.I. Joe characters, forming alliances with He-Man and Go-Bots. The world of that creation is a unique and personal thing, sometimes alone in your own head, or sometimes with a treasured friend of family member.

Andy's sister seems to be the quiet symbol of the future in this movie. Her toys and Barbies are thrown out without reflection, and she worships the implied iPod with her earbuds on all the time, even in conversation. The directors draw the contrast but don't underline it. What are kids losing through those devices? Do kids lose the desire and opportunities to play at a much younger age now with the rise of the omnipresent media and technology. Would I have played as much as a kid if I had had the internet, Playstation, cable TV, and access to every movie or TV show? The answer has to be no.

And, as wonderful as an iPod is, will it ever symbolize or mean as much as a piece of plastic, worn-down Boba Fett or Skeletor or Destro? There's something about playing with (loving?) a toy that makes these films so fantastic. The filmmakers get it, and this is entertainment of the highest order.


Movie Review: RocknRolla

Director: Guy Ritchie

Reviewed: 29 June 2010

jamesintexas rating: **1/2

I'm working my way backwards through Guy Ritchie's canon, and first with Sherlock Holmes and now with RocknRolla, I'm starting to get a handle on his aesthetic. Films filled with many creatively-named characters. Some hyperkinetic editing and action scenes. Loads of drinking and drug use. Quick thinking lead characters with quick dialogue. And, some torture, some terrible, terrible deaths. And fun music. To be clear, I liked, did not love Ritchie's RocknRolla, though there are many fun moments and a winning performance from Gerard Butler.

Butler stars as One-Two, a lower-level hood in London with buddy Mumbles (Idris Elba from The Wire), works small muscle jobs in the city under the thumb of local kingpin Lennie Cole (the always great Tom Wilkinson, chewing the scenery and loving his lines) and occasional work from accountant Stella (Thandie Newton). Mark Strong narrates as Archy, Cole's right hand man, providing the colorful backstories and a reliable anchor in the film.

A convoluted caper goes wrong, and a Russian billionaire Uri is out some money he needs to make a land deal go down with Cole. One-Two and Mumbles steal that money with the assistance of Stella, and use that money to pay Cole. A lucky painting is exchanged and goes missing. Money is owed and needed by various characters. Chaos ensues.

The film overflows with characters and story lines, and I think that is one of its weaknesses. There's a thread with a rock star who is possibly dead, possibly hiding, and it weaves in and out of the plot. The action sequences are fun, especially one that involves a low-speed chase between Butler and a titanic Russian heavy. There's some funny back and forth among One-Two and his mates, particularly with one buddy who has one request before going to prison. Wilkinson has a lot of fun, and Ritchie seems overly enthusiastic to showcase all of the layers of the criminal strata in London. At times, this film does seem like a travelogue, but it is fun.

If you're into this kind of film, see it, but don't have any expectations. And for the record, I'd like to see Gerard Butler in this kind of film opposed to flighty romantic-comedies. And seeing Idris Elba aka Stringer Bell with his English accent, looking calm and having fun is refreshing after the intensity of his years on The Wire.

Edge of Darkness

Movie Review: Edge of Darkness

Director: Martin Campbell

Reviewed: 1 July 2010

jamesintexas rating: *1/2

It's difficult to believe that Mel Gibson has not been seen in a film since Signs in 2002, but now he is back in the revenge thriller Edge of Darkness, as a grieving father who must destroy everyone in his path as he searches for his daughter's killers. Gibson stars as Boston cop Thomas Craven, and seven minutes into the film, his daughter is gunned down in front of him at the door of their home. Moments before the killing, his daughter was getting physically ill and mentioned something that she needed to tell him. Since in this kind of film, the only logical response to the death of a loved one is to cut a bloody path of revenge, Craven explores his daughter's internship with Northmoor Industries, a pseudo-weapons research facility which deals with classified materials and classified projects, leading to a slimy lawyer, Senator, and corporate president Jack Bennett (Danny Huston).

The best parts of the movie are conversations between Craven and possible CIA agent Jedburgh (the wonderful Ray Winstone) who seems interested in helping (or in just not stopping) Craven's unraveling of the conspiracy. The worst parts of this movie include everything else. Gibson is dependable and fine as the father, but Huston is so nefarious, the plot complications so ridiculous, and the CGI at times took me out of the movie.

I like action movies, and I can handle revenge thrillers without nuance. However, this film feels sloppy, lazy at times, and uncreative. Director Martin Campbell has made much stronger films, in particular GoldenEye and Casino Royale. I guess part of the appeal of this film is seeing Gibson behaving badly and killing people in different ways.

I do not recommend this film.

Winter's Bone

Movie Review: Winter's Bone

Director: Debra Granik

Reviewed: 1 July 2010, 26 June 2010

jamesintexas rating: **** (4 stars = Highest Rating)

I am always on the lookout for a summer movie that shines with creativity, a unique vision and offers me a window into a world that I have never seen or imagined. Summer seems to be the site of sequels and vapid action films (of which I can be a fan), but Winter's Bone is no sequel or overblown special effects extravaganza. Rather, this quiet, intense film is simply the best American film so far released in 2010.

Southwestern Missouri along the Arkansas border is the setting, bracing up against the Ozark Mountains. It is winter, the characters wear gloves and hats, and it looks frigid; it appears to be that period in November where it gets really, truly cold without the arrival of snow yet. Set against a simultaneously bleak and beautiful landscape of trees, mountains, and animals who follow the characters into town on the way to school, Ree Dolly (a revelatory Jennifer Lawrence, future Oscar nominee for Best Actress) raises her two younger siblings and cares for her invalid mother in a small cabin in the woods while harboring a secret desire to join the Army. Her high school seems to present two options: motherhood and the military. When Sheriff Baskin (the always watchable Garret Dillahunt, Tommy Lee Jones's deputy in No Country For Old Men) arrives at her door one day, Ree learns that her no account father, Jessup Dolly, has been busted for cooking meth and put up the house and land as bond to get out of jail. If Jessup doesn't show for his court date, the sheriff explains, then Ree and her family will lose the house, rendering them homeless and possibly scattering the family.

"I'll find him," Ree states grimly and resolutely, and the journey begins. With purpose, Ree searches through the back country for her dad, marching up hills and stepping over barbed wire and encountering some malevolent and truly dangerous folk who may be tied to her father's drug-cooking ways, some of whom are her own blood relatives. There's Teardrop, her uncle (John Hawkes), who tries to discourage Ree from asking the wrong people the wrong questions about her dad. When his wife tries to plea Ree's case, Teardrop wearily replies, "I already told you once...with my mouth" hinting at the violence that he is capable of inflicting. Ree's journey takes her to small homes and bars, farms and cattle auctions all while staying true to her character. She has two siblings to care for, and the tenderest moments of the film come when she is teaching them how to cook, shoot a rifle, skin a squirrel. "Watch me make this stew," Ree tells her siblings, "so you can make it yourselves."

Without giving more away, let me just say this: Jennifer Lawrence's performance is flat-out phenomenal. Not in a histrionic, big way, but in tiny, compelling ways. The way she talks to her siblings, the way she walks with her mom. With such a strong central performance, it is easy to overlook the supporting cast, but nearly everyone in this film looks and feels authentic. John Hawkes as Teardrop is revelatory and complex. There's music in the background of many scenes, with local people playing the instruments and singing the songs.

What emerges, as some reviewers have pointed out, is a kind of backwoods Omerta, a code of silence among the inhabitants of this small corner of Missouri. When the Sheriff arrives to speak to Ree in the beginning, Granik focuses her camera on the neighbors, watching and studying the exchange in the background. The message implicit is the us vs. them mentality. Ree won't walk into her best friend's house without her husband's permission, and she refuses to beg for food from her neighbor, teaching her brother, "You never ask for what ought to be given." The threat of violence is present in nearly every scene, creating a palpable sense of dread. The mystery drives the story: Where is Ree's father?

Another way of engaging the film is to see it as a story of women. "Ain't you got no men that can do this?" asks one woman who Ree asks for help. She has none. Women both inflict violence upon Ree and bring her sustenance; she goes to the women of her community who provide her with the clues or hints as to where to find her dad or serve as the buffer between her and their men.

This film is simply excellent. I have seen it twice in less than a week, and it is the leading contender for the Best Picture I've seen this year. It evokes a place unseen in a way that is unlike most movies. It reminds me of family and communities examined closely in, say, Sling Blade or Ulee's Gold. The director infuses this story with humanity and dignity; never do the characters become stereotypes or objects of derision. Even a tricky scene with Ree meeting with an Army recruiter ends up being one of the most unexpected and powerful of the film. Upon informing Ree that at seventeen, she will need her parents' permission to join as well as learning that Ree takes care of her two younger siblings, the recruiter kindly tells her "It sounds like it would be more challenging for you to stay at home and take care of yours," acknowledging in a quiet way that Ree's soldiering through the day supporting her family is as difficult and complex as fighting in a foreign land for the army. The notion that Ree is not seen as an adult by the government is nonsensical; she's established herself as fully capable as she wanders the mountains of her community, desperately trying to save her family's home from being destroyed.

A powerful film.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

American Graffiti

Movie Review: American Graffiti

Director: George Lucas

Reviewed: June 28th, 2010

jamesintexas rating--**** (Highest Rating)

My neighbor Jim Pitrak (a freshman at Kansas U) loaned me his car during my senior year in high school for a semester. The car was a red Nissan half-back Sentra, we called it the ****box, and I loved driving to school with that car, picking up friends with the car, going out on dates with my first girlfriend with that car. I was not someone who drove a great deal in high school. I was on my bike mostly or driven by Jim in that halfback (once in the trunk on a particularly crowded trip to Dunkin' Donuts). I could tell you, though, what most guys on the Cross Country team drove, how they drove, who was the wild man that you didn't want to be in a car with on a Saturday morning Sunday trip to Newton Park. Driving defines a person during their teenage years, and American Graffiti, George Lucas' self-admittedly anthropological study of cruising the strip in 1962 in a small California town, captures the high school and post-high school feeling perfectly. It has a truth to it that is powerful and timeless. In a car, you can search out what you're looking for, even when you're not sure what it is.

The film is a sonic delight. From what I understand, Lucas's use of wall-to-wall music from this time period (pre-British Invasion) was landmark and much-imitated after this film. It seems like every song I grew up hearing on Friday Night Fifties on WJMK with DJ Dick Biondi is in this film. Growing up in a house that always had the radio on, I get the central conceit of having hilarious DJ Wolfman Jack tie the film together. Every teen cruising has his or her radio tuned to the Wolfman who provides comic relief through bits with callers and cues up the greatest hits of the day.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ronnie Howard) are two high school graduates engaging in rituals familiar in July-August in many American cities: the last night before the departure for college, perhaps out of city or out of state; the passing off of a beloved car to an underclassman, in this case, Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith); the decision of whether to stay or go; the question of continuing or ending a high school relationship. John (Paul LeMat) circles around their evening in his souped up car, a guy who has an auto shop in town, is a bit older, and seems resentful that the two are getting out of town. Laurie (Cindy Williams) is Curt's sister, dating Steve, and unsure of what the future holds for her, especially since she faces the dilemma that she is starting her senior year while her boyfriend is leaving. The performances are all fine with Dreyfuss being the central figure on his quest to figure out himself.

Lucas follows each character throughout memorable moments in the evening, getting into trouble, rumors of a guy in a bitchin' car trying to take down John in a race, gang members who threaten violence, sock hops, late night diner conversations with girls that coulda been the one, trying to buy alcohol, a car getting stolen, throwing up, and a wonderful scene in the radio station as Curt tries to find Wolfman Jack to get a message to a woman in a white T-Bird that is haunting his evening, always eluding him.

I loved this film. I'm not sure why it had eluded me, but I want to talk to my parents and friends about it. I'm saddened (in a way) that George Lucas has hidden since the Star Wars films because he seems so sure of himself behind the camera here, the screenplay so well-constructed, the music so well-chosen.

The connections and references to American Graffiti are omnipresent: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Star Wars, Dazed and Confused, Superbad, Stand By Me, etc... Lucas's camera takes us into the lives of these kids and captures these moments. There's an innocence to the times that is slightly shading darker as the film ends: hints of the Vietnam War and the futures of the main characters.

At one point in the evening, three of the main characters ponder a question that haunts the film. It is something to the effect of, "Why do you have to leave great friends behind to make new great friends?", something akin to "Why do things have to change?" The struggle of defining yourself amidst the change and deciding when to hold on to something and when to leave is the crux of this film.

It is the crux of our lives too.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans

jamesintexas movie review: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans

Director: Werner Herzog

Reviewed: May 2010

jamesintexas rating:--*** 1/2

Herzog never makes a boring film, and although I've only seen Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn, I've heard plenty of interviews with the German director, and his focus seems acutely different than a typical Hollywood director. Herzog takes some risks in this film: employing the tic-filled Nicolas Cage to play the lead character in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans, setting the film in post-Katrina New Orleans with bridges, landmarks, and animals always lurking around the edge of the frame.

Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a crooked cop of sorts, hooked on junk ever since he injured his back, a gambler, a close friend to prostitute Frankie, played by Eva Mendes (though their relationship does not seem sexual), and a man struggling to steal as much out of the property room as possible. I will be the first to say that I have not seen the first Bad Lieutenant film with Harvey Keitel, so I won't be comparing the two films here. However, I felt that Nicolas Cage won me over by the end of this film, and I was palpably moved by McDonagh's wrestling with his demons.

Cage's histrionics are fun, as are the occasional iguanas that linger in the foreground of scenes. "What are these ****in' iguanas doing on my coffee table" McDonagh growls to Stevie, played by the always watchable Val Kilmer. Herzog keeps his camera in interesting places, suggesting many things, noticing bridges and church steeples poking out in the distance behind neighborhoods. The soundtrack works, and the scene towards the end at McDonagh's desk is well-staged.

Warning: this movie is bizarre, filled to the brim with interesting, quirky performances, difficult to stomach at times, but ultimately, I was exhilarated by it all. A scene where McDonagh accosts two young people on their way out of a club is terrifying and then sickening. A scene in a retirement home is brutal and difficult to watch. I wish Nicolas Cage would stick to acting in films like this, and stop showboating in action films. His talent is considerable.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Iron Man 2

jamesintexas Movie review--Iron Man 2

Director: Jon Favreau

Reviewed: May 2010

jamesintexas rating--**

Wow, what a disappointment. Welcome to the summer movies of 2010, I guess. Iron Man 2 kicks off the summer with a whimper, struggling to make sense of itself and wasting a cast of marvelous actors. It will rule the box office this week (and no doubt, make a truck full of money), but will anyone want to watch this movie again?

Robert Downey, the eminently likeable actor in such gems as Home for the Holidays, Wonder Boys, Kiss-Kiss, Bang-Bang, and Tropic Thunder, returns as billionaire Tony Stark, techno-weapons expert who has transformed himself (using a number of helpful talking robots) into the Iron Man weapon. Let me be forthright; I enjoyed the first film quite a bit. Although it was overshadowed by its darker, deeper cousin The Dark Knight in the summer of 2008, Iron Man itself was fun, buoyed by Downey Jr.'s performance, as well as top-flight special effects, and a supporting, nasty turn from the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. It was fun, pure and simple. However, after staying past the credits of this bloated, aimless sequel, I'm not looking forward to the inevitable Iron Man 3, 4, and 5.

There's no problem with Downey Jr.'s snarky, miles-a-minute performance as egomaniac Stark. His lines don't read as funny as I had hoped they would; again, knowing the good lines from the trailer does decrease their power. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Starks' secretary-friend-turned CEO, and the Oscar-winning Paltrow mostly stands around, talks on the phone, looking frightened/concerned. Don Cheadle replace Terence Howard as Starks' buddy Rhodey; Cheadle is always dependably solid. His humor is sharply displayed in the last minute of film, and it could have livened up the proceedings much earlier. It was a relief to see him cut on Stark and throw jabs back at him. They should have given him a chance to loosen up earlier.

Scarlet Johansson, who has not made a good film since Lost in Translation, emerges as a new secretary, Natalie Rushman, working for Stark Industries; Natalie is more than she seems, but unfortunately, Johansson's performance is not. It is dull, emotionless, and besides some butt-kicking that, frankly, Uma Thurman in Kill-Bill, Carie-Anne Moss in The Matrix, and Malin Akerman in Watchmen could have done in their sleep. I don't know what it is about Johansson, but I don't think that she brings anything to the table in this film. Cheadle tries gamely, Downey Jr. delivers the best that he can, but the true tragedy of this film is Mickey Rourke.

To be clear, I like Mickey Rourke. I like his bizarre hair, crazy-Russian-prison tattoos, his mumbling Russian line readings as Stark nemesis Ivan Vanko. Yet, he's wasted here, given an incomplete character and not given much to do, besides looking at a computer screen and some furious typing! Rourke has such a presence and physicality, even as a comic book sized antihero in Sin City; here, he's confined and diminished, defusing his creativity and effectiveness. There's some incomprehensible backstory about how Stark's dad betrayed Vanko's dad way back in the day, getting Vanko's dad deported back to Russia; Rourke has a state-of-the-art physics lab in Siberia where he toils away, replicating the Iron Man suit during the opening minutes. Rourke is such an interesting, provocative actor; his work in The Wrestler was so compelling, that it is difficult to watch him here snarl and cackle, mumble his way through lines. Vanko's character is poorly developed (and disappears for at least 20 minutes by my count in the middle to last third of the film), and the final fight is anticlimactic at best, uninspired and boring at worst. I awarded a half-star more to this film because of Rourke's frightening electric whips, which--in the film's most exciting sequence--slice a car in two!

Rourke deserved better direction, as did Sam Rockwell as his co-villain, a weapons expert Justin Hammer. Rockwell seemed to be trying hard to replicate Downey Jr. at times; at other times, I was wishing Gary Oldman was there to inject some silliness or accents, ala The Fifth Element. Anytime Rockwell is on the screen, the movie falls flat. And when Rockwell and Rourke are together, what should be fun isn't.

Cinematically, there's no point in even trying to film a jailbreak scene in the post-Dark Knight era. No one can beat The Joker sewing a cell phone bomb into a prisoner who is then checked into the prison. A blob of C4 on a cafeteria plate and some slow-mo Mickey Rourke walking away from the cell as it explodes in a towering fireball is just not going to cut it. Go big, Favreau, or go home.

And finally, I've grown tired of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, wandering into the film several times as Basil Exposition, giving us tedious backstory, setting up inevitable prequels, sequels, referencing other superheroes, other characters, other eventual movies. After the credits end, they introduce yet another superhero movie, and I rolled my eyes. When I'm annoyed by Samuel L. Jackson, something's not working.

Save your money.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


jamesintexas Movie Review: Appaloosa

Director: Ed Harris

Reviewed: April 2010

jamesintexas Rating: ***

I'm a fan of westerns. Not many are made nowadays, but it seems like those that are are made with love. 3:10 to Yuma was my top film a few years back. Open Range with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall was a gift. I was raised appreciating Silverado as well as John Wayne's films. So, I'm inclined to walk into Appaloosa looking for things to like. And there was quite a bit that I liked.

Ed Harris plays the laconic lead character, Virgil Cole, a kind of bounty hunter, rent-a-sheriff, who speaks deliberately and shoots with a deadly aim. Cole and his partner, Everett Hitch, (an excellent Viggo Mortenson) arrive in the town of Appaloosa, New Mexico and are contracted out by the townfolk to extinguish the fires set by the dangerous rancher Randall Bragg (the wily Jeremy Irons). We know ten minutes into the movie that there will be an inevitable final showdown. How it gets there, though, is part of the fun.

They become deputized, arrest Bragg, deal with his men, deal with Native Americans, go to trial, protect a witness, try to deliver the prisoner to the gallows, experience their train being hijacked. All the while, both men quietly, stoically stick to their code. After a shootout, Hitch announces, "That was quick." To which, Virgil replies, "Yeah, everybody could shoot." That pretty much sums up most of the movie. Virgil and Hitch are good at what they do. Most of the men they come up against are not as good.

There's Renee Zelwegger as a damsel in distress, a recently widowed woman who arrives in tht town and falls for Virgil and tries to put the moves on Hitch. Something about Zelwegger's performance didn't sit right with me. The character or the performance. However, the interplay between Cole and Hitch is the real love story here. Without a word, they can glance at each other, each knowing the other so well, reading the other's mind.

Harris stages the shootouts realistically and intensely; there are some beautiful shots of the landscape as well. At times, I wonder if his performance as Virgil could have been more human; I never bought the softening of his character as he falls into a relationship (I won't call it love). He gives some vicious line readings though.

Bragg announces with glee, "I told you you'd never hang me, Cole!"
Virgil retorts, "Never ain't here yet."

Good, solid film-making.

The French Connection

jamesintexas Movie Review--The French Connection

Director: William Friedkin

Reviewed: April 2010

jamesintexas rating--****

As a fan of The Wire, Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, and NYPD Blue, I was instantly drawn into the world of The French Connection, a shadowy thriller set in New York City, with its memorable cop characters, shady villains, rooftop snipers, and evocative chase scenes on foot, public transportation, and most memorably, on the El. Gene Hackman plays Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, and Roy Scheider plays Buddy "Cloudy" Russo; together, they form a brutal narcotics force of nature, brutalizing criminals, perfecting the good cop, bad cop routine by peppering suspects with random questions. "Are you still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?" Popeye badgers one of their witnesses, confusing both him and me. I had to call my dad later to find out what Popeye was doing.

Late 60's, early 70's New York with most of the film shot on location. Shadowy villains in France, traveling to America. Some sort of drug deal. The film takes a long time to get going, but in a sense, it is moving forward from the first scene of violence. What I liked is that Popeye and Buddy have to follow, observe, and wonder about many of the connections and criminal activity in the film. And so do we. As opposed to their brutally racist shake-downs of African-American bars, these criminals will require the detectives to draw the lines among the players, getting wiretaps, staging elaborate ways to follow "Frog One" or "Frog Two" on the street.

Popeye emerges as a complex, dark character; his pursuit of his objective is both brutal and single-minded. As a sniper nearly takes his life, killing an innocent woman with a baby behind him, Popeye glances at her, but his primary goal is catching his man, completing his mission. At whatever cost. Gene Hackman is electric in this role, and Scheider serves as a great foil to him. Popeye's hat and trench coat are iconic images, stomping his feet and drinking his nasty coffee as he stares through windows, jumps on and off of trains, gets caught in traffic jams.

The use of music and the decisions when not to use music are masterful. Friedkin shoots this film in an urgent, captivating way. At times, his camera zooms way out to the extreme, giving us the bigger picture, how things fit together. At other times, the camera zooms in, focusing on a key detail on the street. The sets seem for the most part to be real locations, the detritus of New York City. The centerpiece, of course, is the driving under the El scene where Hackman's character pursues a suspect on foot, on train, and then in a car chasing a train. It is iconic; watching it was almost anticlimactic, especially since I have seen it featured at the Academy Awards and in numerous clip shows. I can imagine seeing that chase on the big screen must have been epic. It stands the test of time.

In closing, I like the ambiguity of The French Connection, the darkness and the way that Friedkin is confident in telling his story his way, never giving the audience too much information. The final shot is troubling; what does that final gunshot mean? The closing titles telling the future of the characters leaves us frustrated and upset. My dad told me that this film made Gene Hackman's career, bringing him his first Academy Award for acting. It is a powerful, tour-de-force performance, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it.

Some Like It Hot

jamesintexas Movie Review--Some Like It Hot

Director: Billy Wilder

Reviewed: April 2010

jamesintexas rating--****

Put simply, this film is a masterpiece. It is my first Marilyn Monroe film, as well as the first time I've ever seen Tony Curtis or a young Jack Lemmon. Some film lists have Some Like It Hot as the number one comedy of all-time, and I don't think that I can argue with that.

After witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), two musicians, decide to skip town in drag, joining lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) and her all-girls band who are traveling on a train from Chicago to Florida. Joe becomes Josephine; Jerry becomes Daphne because, "Well, I never did like the name Geraldine!" Hilarity ensues as they try to escape the mobsters that are following them, avoid detection while surrounded by women, as well as deal with their rivalry for Sugar's attentions.

Joe/Josephine eventually creates a third character, a Shell Oil tycoon to woo Sugar, using all of his inside knowledge to tell her exactly what she wants to hear. Meanwhile, Jerry/Daphne is relentlessly pursued by a real tycoon, entertaining thoughts of marriage and honeymoon with him. It becomes almost Shakespearean, with multiple costume and voice changes, and, of course, the mobsters are having their annual convention in the same hotel used by the girls/boys.

Some Like It Hot has probably the greatest closing line of all-time. Monroe is very good as the floozy Sugar: "I can stop drinking any time I want to, only I don't want to!" Additionally, Jack Lemmon is the find in this film. Lemmon seems to be having the most fun, contorting his face, giving Daphne a freedom and vivacity, and Wilder gives him enough time and opportunities to shine. The script is crisp, with sharp lines and careful structure. Curtis and Lemmon work well together; only one scene between Curtis and Monroe falls flat in today's world, not standing the test of time very well. The physical comedy--the hiding, the costume changes, the running through the hotel--is handled with dexterity.

In conclusion, I am now seeking out Jack Lemmon's early roles, as well as the films of the great director Billy Wilder. Some Like It Hot is a film that I wished that I had seen much earlier in my life. It is a wonderfully fun film, maybe the best of its kind.

Friday, April 23, 2010


jamesintexas Movie Review--Kick-Ass

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Reviewed: April 2010

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

The preview was better than the movie, to put it simply. Matthew Vaughn, the director of the underrated Daniel Craig vehicle Layer Cake, puts together an anti-superhero movie of sorts that shines in moments when it winks at the genre (especially in the opening shots) and when Hit-Girl pops around the screen, spewing over-the-top dialogue while mercilessly beating all the baddies around her. But the more I think about this film, the more it kind of falls apart for me.

Dave, aka Kick-Ass, (played by Aaron Johnson), a high school guy in love with comics, attempts to fight crime, gets nearly killed, receives reinforced bones (I think) and a higher pain threshold, and stumbles into becoming an overnight Internet sensation vigilante. Supporting turns are provided by Nicolas Cage as a similar, shadowy hero-type, as well as McLovin' himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as the son of the local mob boss Frank, (the forgettable Mark Strong). There's an obligatory love interest for Kick-Ass who only exists to be his girlfriend (though it is refreshing that she does not end up needing to be rescued in the final act), as well as a few friends who don't know the truth about his secret identity.

There is an energy and excitement when Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, the little sister in 500 Hundred Days of Summer) explodes onto a scene, with her shock-purple hair and vicious moves. The soundtrack jumps in with her, propelling the scene with an energy that is lacking in most of the film. Nicolas Cage is enjoyably weird, shooting his daughter in the opening scenes with low-velocity rounds to test out the bulletproof vest employed later in the film. He calmly tells her, "It's just a matter of time before someone pulls a Glock on you," before he fires into her chest. She's the best thing about this film; I like Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weeky's assessment of Hit Girl: "a pint-size, purple-haired martial-arts demon who's like a prepubescent version of Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films."

Yet, I'm not fully recommending this film. I wanted to see the Nicolas Cage-Hit Girl film. I was confused by some of the details--so, Hit Girl has never been to school, never socialized with anyone her own age? So, there's a partner to Nicolas Cage who is shown looking worried several times in the film but is left with nothing to do (except swoop in at the ending, fixing all problems)? Maybe I expected more from Kick-Ass's enemy, a mob boss who owns a lumber company (?). Maybe I didn't love the way the film ends with Red Mist spouting a sequel-promoting line from Jack Nicholson's Joker character in Tim Burton's far superior Batman. There's a lot of fun in this movie, but I don't think it works like it should. Maybe there will be more of Hit Girl in the sequel? I wish the movie had more of the joy and fire it shows when she is on screen.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


jamesintexas Movie Review: Greenberg

Director: Noah Baumbach

Reviewed: April 2010

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a portrait in arrested development, a 40 turning 41-year old man who recuperates in his brother's gorgeous house in L.A., who interacts with his old friends as well as building a relationship with his brother's family assistant, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig). Greenberg lives in his brother's home, tries to take care of his dog, walks everywhere (he cannot drive), and tries to reconnect with Beth, a past lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh). At some point in his past, Greenberg was in a band, close to signing a record deal. Yet, he left L.A., left the band, and his estranged relationship with his bandmates simmers until he returns from New York (with hints of being institutionalized in NYC at some point).

Stiller's performance is well-calibrated and disarming; as such a charismatic, hilarious actor, he dials it down and makes Greenberg complicated, difficult, and unlikable at times. Gerwig, unfortunately, does not have as much to do besides reacting to Greenberg; her character seems to exist only to serve as a pseudo-girlfriend to Greenberg.

Baumbach's earlier film The Squid and the Whale did a much better job as a study in awkwardness. Greenberg did constantly fill me with low levels of dread; the party scene had me on the edge of my seat because of the possible dangers of the dog and a container of pills. Rhys Ifans does an extremely solid job as Ivan Schrank, Greenberg's friend and ex-bandmate, though I'm not sure after so many encounters with him, why he remains Greenberg's friend. Ivan tells him, "Youth is wasted on the young." Greenberg replies, "I'd go further. I'd go: 'Life is wasted on people.'"

The last third of the film involves a possible spur-of-the-moment trip to Australia, frantic rushing around, some drug use, and epiphanies between friends and lovers. Ultimately, I do not think this film works as well as it should, but I cannot condemn it. Stiller's work is very credible; the uncomfortable factor is palpable. Baumbach's work is always interesting and studied.

And, a final caveat, I have to admit to my own biases: I don't necessarily get movies where people wander around all-day without jobs, with money of indeterminate amount from unknown sources, date their brother's employees, and do not drive.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Movie Review: Avatar

Director: James Cameron

Reviewed: December 2009.

jamesintexas rating--****

(4 Stars = Highest Rating)

George Lucas, are you listening?

I've seen the film twice, in both 3D and regular, and experiencing Avatar on the big screen in all of its grandeur was the experience I kept waiting for with the Star Wars prequels. I saw Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace over eight times in the theater, and the second and third films both underwhelmed and disappointed me, the second in particular. They are not movies I want to watch again and again. It was crushing to see George Lucas take my childhood stories as well as worlds of wonder/beauty (Hoth, Cloud City, Tatooine, Endor) and crush the spirit out of them.

Where those Star Wars prequels were disappointing, cloying, and, ultimately, failures in terms of integrating mind-blowing effects and telling a politically relevant or just plain interesting story, Avatar exceeded all of my expectations, brilliantly set up a compelling frame to the story (much like Cameron did in Titanic), integrates the amazing special effects in a close to seamless way, as well as making a powerful political statement.

Who would have thought that James Cameron would have made a $250,000,000 film that addresses the militarism of our times, our response to 'the other' aka the enemy, winning "the hearts and minds," as well as what is ruined in the quest for the MacGuffin of "unobtanium" (insert gold, oil, metals, etc...)? Cameron and his Academy Award winning cinematographer confidently spirit their camera through swooping tracking shots in the jungle-Endor-like planet of Pandora, focusing lovingly on beautiful, amazing, glow-in-the-dark creatures, terrifying animals, and the Na'vi tribe who live in harmony with nature, not in opposition to it. To summarize, Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), an injured marine participates in the avatar program on Pandora to infiltrate and earn the trust of the Na'vi tribe who are sitting on unobtanium--a much-needed element. Jake falls under the tutelage of Neyteri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the chief, and he quickly learns the ways of the Na'vi, moving back and forth between the two worlds, falling in love, and becoming a revolutionary.

Are their criticisms? Of course. Yes, the Stephen Lang character is far too much of a caricature blowhard warmonger; however, is he that much of a stretch from an American (circa 2003) Manichean outlook on the world? I too wonder how much different the film would be if the conflict wasn't set up with such an easy target (Lang, Ribisi, gung-ho Blackwater troops)? I do believe that Lang's character, much like modern politicians and defense secretaries, makes the overtures of peace and negotiation (UN inspectors, sanctions), while planning with certainty the subsequent invasion (making the plans for war farther in advance than the country knew). The money put into the avatar-program was similar to state department programs, working to win the "hearts and minds," while simultaneously preparing for war.

There were moments in this film that made me want to cheer. It appealed to me on a very child-like level (not intended as a pejorative), as well as an adult level. As a child, I cheered when the battle scenes combined everything I loved in The Return of the Jedi's final X-and-Y-wing attack sequences on the Death Star with the brutally violent effects of Starship Troopers best alien attack scenes. As an adult, I cheered when Sigourney Weaver showed up as eco-warrior in a Stanford t-shirt, fighting for understanding the Na'vi, not obliterating them. I cheered for the complexity of the Matrix-like pods the characters used to link-in to their avatars. I cheered when Cameron allowed his camera to linger on incredible, unique creatures and landscapes, not just whizzing past them, like Lucas on his way to telling his story. Cameron is not afraid to spend time to play in this world. The play is what defines this film as much as the action. I believe Cameron's time spent in underwater photography (crafting documentaries of undersea creatures as well as the Titanic) have informed his eye and story-telling.

I liked the way Cameron referenced his previous works--hearing elements of the Aliens pounding score, the vague references to "The Company" which I believe sent Ellen Ripley back to bring back an alien for bio-weapons research, the ship crashing epically like the boat in Titanic, and having a protagonist hang off of a missile ala True Lies--in tiny, revealing ways, as well I liked Cameron's belief that we the audience can draw our own conclusions about what to make of the plot, (i.e. What is the statement being made about America and its incursions into other parts of the world? How do we deal with a world destroyed or overpopulated to the point where a Na'vi-style philosophy by itself would be insufficient?) though a few of the "We fight terror with terror!" lines were more explicitly drawn than I needed them to be.

The score is moving; the Na'vi creatures are wonderful-looking. The riding scenes are some of my favorites, as well as scenes where characters balance precariously on logs, hopping through this incredible, eye-popping world. The visuals of this film are so colorful in surprising ways, and I love how Cameron hides things in the background and shows the intricacy of this world through a delicate, floating jellyfish style dandelion seed pod that floats through certain scenes. It reminds me of what could have happened in the Star Wars prequels but did not.

In conclusion, Cameron's eye for visual effects and for crafting a story that uses those effects in a compelling way worked in a way I haven't seen in a film in a long, long time, maybe since Titanic and Return of the Jedi. If I was a ten-year old kid, this movie would have completely blown my mind. As a 31-year old kid, this movie filled me with wonder and amazement. With its flaws, it still makes the top of my best of the year list.

Well-done, Jim Cameron. You truly are the King of the World. Take as much time as you need to for your next film. It was worth the wait.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Movie Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Reviewed: 2 April 2010

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Restrained, yet unflinching. Brutal, yet elegantly told. Fresh, yet alien. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo could be a filmed version of a thriller from the pen of Thomas Harris, ala Manhunter (also known as Red Dragon), The Silence of the Lambs, or Hannibal. Instead, the late Swedish writer Stieg Larrson’s riveting story of a lost, possibly murdered girl, a wealthy family in a small country area only accessible via one bridge, and a disgraced journalist who meets his match in a brilliant, iconoclastic researcher transcends the entire genre, becomes a serious study of misogyny as well as corruption. And, in Sweden, of all places, a locale that I have rarely, if ever, seen depicted on film.

In short, Harriet Vanger, a sixteen-year-old girl and favorite niece of shipping magnate Uncle Henrik Vanger, disappeared from the island 40 years ago. Yet, every year on Harriet’s birthday, someone sends Henrik a pressed flower, haunting the old man, reminding him that Harriet’s body was never found. Due to an accident at the bridge on the day of Harriet’s disappearance, no one was able to get on or off of the island, meaning that the guilty party might be one of his family members, in town for their annual board meeting. Henrik, acutely aware of journalistic crusader Mikael Blomkvist’s recent public disgrace (and upcoming prison stint for libel against a powerful Swedish business leader), appeals to Blomkvist to look into the old case. Everyone is a suspect. Blomkvist must resign from his beloved Millenium Magazine (Blomkvist’s presence is damaging to the advertisers now that he is going to prison), so he agrees to leave Stockholm for this investigation in the country. Of course, while Blomkvist settles into Hedestad, a fictional town on the Swedish coast, home of the Vanger clan, he fights not only the bitter, unrelenting cold, but also out of focus photographs, incomplete memories, and a distinct feeling that someone does not want him digging around in the family history. While he searches for Harriet Vanger, Lisbeth Salander begins the film investigating him.

Lisbeth is a phenomenal researcher, a cyber-hacker who uses her incredible photographic memory and attention to detail (possibly a sufferer of Asperger’s Disease) to discover why Blomkvist lost his place in the journalistic world, being named guilty when he appears to have been set up. Lisbeth, a tattooed, spiky-necklaced, multi-pierced, chain-smoking twenty-four-year-old, proves a jarring sight to the client who hires her, but her sleuthing work is top-notch, earning her respect from her superiors at a security firm. Lisbeth lives life on her terms with her black hair often obscuring half of her face, moving guardedly around the subways and dark streets of Stockholm, evading harassment from random thugs, lashing out violence in response to violence, and meeting only with fellow cyber-hackers that give her the tools to penetrate any computer’s hard drive. Eventually, however, Lisbeth finds herself the hunted, as a new legally appointed guardian begins to overstep his role in controlling her paycheck and in essence, her life, and she is powerless to report his sexual advances. Without revealing much more, the two characters’ lives—Blomkvist and Salander—converge, joining forces to uncover the truth and what really happened to Harriet Vanger.

Praise must be lauded upon the lead actors. Both Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander come to life from the terrific, understated performances by Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace in complete synchronicity with their written characters; neither of them employs the showy, histrionic acting style that could have been ruined the tenor of this picture. The director made countless successful, restrained choices with plenty of medium to close-up shots of the actors, limiting the travelogue-type shots introducing the Swedish countryside. There are no extra scenes; everything propels the story forward. The score is effective; the cinematography, impressive. And the final shot? A wonderfully sly tip of the hat to Jonathan Demme and Anthony Hopkins’ Brando-esque walk-off, as Hannibal Lecter pursues Dr. Chilton. Really wonderful stuff.

Make no mistake—this film is dark, brutally violent, and disturbing. It says something about the construction of the film when a closing scene conversation between Lisbeth and her mother (played by Rapace’s actual mother) is as tense as some of the most violent, chase scenes in the film. The tension is held throughout, and the director, Niels Arden Oplev employs innovative and clear techniques to show us the computers, scanners, photographs, and archives constructed on computers in a way that seems innovative and fresh. I have rarely ever seen computers used in a movie in a way that resemble the MacBook upon which I type this review.

I recommend this film fully, with the only caveat being that there are scenes of intense and sustained violence. I found no difficulty reading the subtitles and following the action onscreen. Fans of The Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, Seven, and other thrillers will find quite a bit to like in this film.

A word of caution to American director David Fincher or whomever else is considering updating The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with American actors and re-filming it. This story, simply put, is rooted in Stockholm and the Upperlands of Sweden. Public transportation is essential to the story, as is coffee and the lack of gunplay (probably having to do with a more European approach to gun ownership). Lisbeth Salander is a groundbreaking, iconic role; Rapace’s performance is phenomenal, deserving of Academy Award consideration. Very few actresses could achieve what she does with this role. Her eyes dart around when she feels cornered, her walk conveys quite a bit about her character, her interactions with others display mechanisms built up to handle the abuse and worse her character has suffered. Without offending Kristen Stewart of Twilight, the current internet-rumored actress to play Lisbeth Salander, my question to any American director is ‘Why would you update this film?’ Put simply, it is a masterpiece, deserving of its own audience. Find another story.