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.