Thursday, April 30, 2009


"Elephant" is a somewhat weary jab at the maladjusted teens and college students who turn a gun against their entire school. Gus Van Sant, though, is more interested than just constructing a tale of this sort. He takes his time, showing a full, staggered day at a high school where people go about their day and not much really seems to be happening. Van Sant follows a few students around, employing his low-resolution techniques to a great extent. He also works up a quasi-quirky script where he seems to find the right pitch, at least for the first hour (as the events spiral out of control, so does the film). He also goes into disturbing territory. What's especially odd is the choice to use the actors' names as those of the killers and victims. Alex Frost plays Alex, a disturbed student ripped apart so much by his school experience as well as Eric (Eric Deulen). They decide to end it all on a day like every other, just the case with every other shooting. To get an idea, they prepare by playing senselessly violent computer games and watching old Nazi tapes. What's strange about this film is that all of this is encompassed in the last twenty minutes. Before is a classic Van Sant work of cinematographic genius. Although he can't really balance out the film for even 80 minutes, he can create marvelous compositions. Visually, "Elephant" is a stunner. Harris Savides (who shot "Milk," "Gerry," and "The Game") is a stellar cameraman. He and Van Sant use the shooting location they have to the fullest extent. As a structure, it's also quite an interesting film. The time frame is staggered, so you're not exactly sure when everything happens. There are visual and audio signifiers to tie everything up, of course. Speaking of really tying the film up, Van Sant, as I said before, can't hold it all together. I thought it was very strong, but the ending was too tangled up in gunsmoke to really finish off. B+

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Nothing But the Truth

Rod Lurie's "Nothing But the Truth" is the first real attempt to make a movie out of the Valerie Plame Scandal, and unfortunately it's not the piece that the story deserved. It's entirely concealed within an idiotic but mildly intelligent and fictional satire written by Lurie himself. On the standards of interest, the film pulls in the audience to check what's changed in the adaptation (practically everything). I was definitely drawn to a film like this. But the problem is that it's mediocre and is cliched as a screenplay. Since there is a small glint of a political spin here, Lurie constructs a unoriginal backstory. This impairs a possibly brilliant idea that could have been completely coaxed out. The two most significant changes, both huge spoilers, seem like pieces of plot driven fully into the ground as if Lurie had a hard time continuing his film, but they provide for the film's only real points. Anyways, the film chronicles a reporter's (Kate Beckinsale) choice to not tell who gave her information on Valerie Plame's status as a CIA agent. The Plame reincarnation is played by Vera Fermiga, in scenes that consist of her bubbling over in extreme expletives as means of conveying anger. So, the reporter is brought to jail after she denies repeatedly to give up the crucial information to the investigator (Matt Dillon). She thus begins a semi-self-imposed jail term where she tries to keep her integrity while her marriage to a generic popular fiction writer (David Schwimmer) falls to pieces and her relationship with her child gets harder. As I said, outside of the central events of the film (i.e. the scandal), the film is a disappointing support system. It's fairly routine in terms of technicalities. Beckinsale brings limited desperation to her role, while Dillon surely brings a lot of the menace stockpiled in his arsenal. Alan Alda is so-so as Beckinsale's lawyer. Lurie's performance as a director is for sure subpar. His decision to commence the film with the president being shot is underwhelming. The POTUS of the film is not relatable to anyone such as George W. Bush. It's a plot move to further obscure the facts, what really happened. Look, "Nothing But the Truth" is an interesting look into journalism and the final moments of the film show a real bitter edge given towards newspaper writing. But Lurie gets his agenda mixed up. He should pick one topic of two to pursue: the legitimacy of journalism, or the Valerie Plame Scandal. Here, he combines both, and while this may seem like an logical choice, it doesn't result that way. If he had aimed for source-like satire, he should have gone smaller scale, recalling the Plame ordeal via satire instead of the way he recalls it here. It's really not the place to test this satire: it's too implausible, and the events leading up to it are too serious. It could have been smarter, and, if separated, the Plame movie could be more of a commentary. C

Saturday, April 25, 2009

State of Play

"State of Play" is a seriously textbook newspaper thriller. Kevin McDonald doesn't try to get at anything really new here, or well, maybe he does, but the style is too formulaic to elicit anything original. It's got an interesting subject at its core. A congressman named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is romantically tied with Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer). Baker is part of his inside team, and she gets killed early on in the film. From this point, it seems like this will be what the film is following, but, like the walls of a newspaperman's cubicle, it gets a little complex.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a newspaperman who's the roommate of Collins, is trying to find out how Sonia Baker died and whether or not she had any relation to an organization called... Does it really matter? No. On the case with him is Della Frye, played by Rachel McAdams. She's a hotshot blogger (what else is a blogger?), and she wants to work for McAffrey's newspaper, The Washington Globe. The editor of this newspaper is Helen Mirren, who seems like she's M in a journalistic setting. She interjects constantly and predictably, not offering any real depth. Not that this is that kind of a movie. This is the kind of movie where stuff is pieced together in unfortunately amateurish ways. McAffrey just had to be involved with Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn). He had to create unnecessary, inconsequential tension, since the rest of the movie kind of lacks that. The organization I previously mentioned, which in case you were really wondering is called PointCorp, becomes a bigger and bigger subject throughout the film. As this happens, the movie gets more and more typical.

There is one great scene, though. This comes courtesy of Jason Bateman, who steals that moment as a crude, Cadillac-driving insider. At the beginning of the film, you are told to be impressed by Crowe, but here, Bateman, even though this is not probably the intention of the screenwriter, is excellent and diverts the attention. This may not be where the film wants to go. In this scene, seriously important and revealing information is passed over. Bateman is a lot more interesting to me than those secrets.

On a technical level, the film is run-of-the-mill. Of course it's pretty well shot, pretty well scripted, and made craftily. Crowe is not as good as he was in "Body of Lies" or "3:10 to Yuma," due to his unfortunate additions of "man" to every conversation between him and Affleck. Affleck is not too bad, and handles his emotions nicely, but he can't really power the movie from the part he's in. McAdams and Mirren are both average. Bateman and Viola Davis (in a 15-20 second appearance) are great, but they have bit parts. They can't hold together a lukewarm but intention-heavy drama. McDonald can't quite bring any real insight either. He makes a intriguing and hooking facade, but when he goes deeper, he can't follow it all up (even though I think TomSpot noted a like of the final shot). B-

Sunday, April 19, 2009


In cinema, no baseball film ever really depicts the climb up the minor league system. Almost every film starts right in the majors. "Sugar" is much different than what you've seen before in terms of baseball films. It succumbs to some different, apparently necessary cliches that every baseball movie has, but mostly, it's an interesting perspective on the game. The problem is that it can't maintain this mentality throughout the whole film. It starts as a first-rate baseball film and ends as a third-rate immigration drama.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have something here, it's just that it doesn't unfold in the way that it could have. They portray beisbol as a dazed state. What other game is like this? If you took time to contemplate in basketball or football, the opponent would have already scored. Algenis Perez Soto does quite well as a Dominican pitcher named Sugar Santos. He has a knucklecurve, and this is his claim to fame. What struck me is that to Americans, there is always a place for the young Hispanic phenom who can throw hard but who eventually slows down and allows another Hispanic phenom to take his place in a circle. Santos gets invited to Spring Training and impresses the scouts with every pitch. He's then shipped out to Iowa, where he is taken in by two elderly baseball nuts (Ann Whitney and Richard Bull) who see that the next Hispanic phenom does well for his block of time. This is where the film is the most flawed. At this point, Boden and Fleck rely on cliches to guide them. Every, every Midwesterner pro-noun-ces every word for Santos. They also go to church fervently, speak horrendous Spanish, have loved ones in Iraq, and everything else Americans "do."

Anyways, Santos' eye is caught by Anne (Ellary Porterfield), who likes him but doesn't want to get serious about anything. I'm wondering if this is what eventually throws Sugar, but it could also be that his veneer proves untrue. "Sugar" it seems is mostly about what I said before: being another Hispanic phenom in line. This is all good, but the execution isn't quite. The music is as varied as a bizarre montage with TV on the Radio to a Spanish rendition of "Hallelujah" to the horrible end song choice of Moby's "In This World." The feel of the film itself also impairs it. It all seems so familiar. "Sugar" is no doubt a flawed film, but I like it nonetheless, however uneven it is in the end. B-

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre" has come hot out of Sundance and has compiled a good track record among critics. In his debut film, Fukunaga, like Steve McQueen with "Hunger," takes on a mostly avoided filmmaking subject: immigration. He won a directing award at the aforementioned festival, and for some good reason. He makes a film in the same vein as Fernando Meirelles' "City of God." These type of street smart, camera-savvy pieces are usually critically-acclaimed. The camerawork in "Sin Nombre" is admittedly quite good as well. Adriano Goldman, the cinematographer on the little praised sequel to "City of God," "City of Men," makes good shot compositions and keeps your eye on the screen.

There is also the magnetism of the leads: Edgar Flores as Willy, a gang member that has to go on the run, and Paulina Gaitan as Sayra, the beautiful immigrant who he befriends gradually and strongly. Their friendship is hard, though, since he's under the gun. He's worried about her safety. She just wants to be with him, but her dad and her uncle want her just to get to America, and going with this loner might not be the best ticket. Willy also has a wound: his girlfriend was murdered and apparently almost raped by his gang leader. When he eventually slays this man, his young friend, Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) is sent to put a bullet clean through. These elements provide for unnecessary suspense.

Isn't the journey itself picturesque enough to make a film about? Fukunaga doesn't think so, though. He tries to hammer too hard. He doesn't eventually go for art, he goes for your adrenal glands. He doesn't reach them, though. His ending is manufactured. When the film crosses the border, it doesn't really quite enrapture you as before. Here the destination is nowhere near as interesting as the trip. B+

Friday, April 10, 2009


"Hunger," the excellent film by Steve McQueen, is a sickening, brutal dustup of the 1981 prison sentence of Bobby Sands and others around him. McQueen, in his debut film, goes headlong into a challenging period and crafts superb imagery. The movie is extremely hard to stomach and changes its feel every scene or so, making it erratic. There's a magnetism that keeps you going, though. McQueen knows how to set his shots up. He's like a modern, British Ozu, except he's gone darker and deeper. As the film opens, it seems to be headed towards being a glossy 80's replica. But McQueen takes this feel and extends it even farther. Also, he makes art with the most extreme substances, such as circles of excretion on a cell wall or the collected urine of protesting prisoners joining together.

But what he concentrates on is the brutality of The Troubles and how the IRA got treated in prison. "In the Name of the Father," Jim Sheridan's 1993 similar started to scrape the surface, but Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite couldn't replicate the conditions as well as "Hunger" now has. This is mostly because of Michael Fassbender, who gives a mesmerizing and disturbing performance as Bobby Sands. Although during the long scene with the priest he banters, Fassbender does most of his acting without speaking. McQueen directs well, since he's got the right actor in the most integral role, one who can channel Sands well. McQueen also decides to let his shots run long. The average shot length seems to be about 2 and half minutes (or at least that's how it feels). The pacing here is slack and works well that way.

The subtle overall feel of the film and how it doesn't quite reflect the horrors that are inside of it is disturbing as well. The same can be said for the devastating deterioration of Sands, and how Fassbender plays him is horrific. And this isn't even the most disquieting moment of the film. Not in the very least. "Hunger" is an unsettling look at how political fasting takes its toll, and made at least me thankful for three-course meals. A

Content Warning: "Hunger" is one of the most disturbing films of the decade. If it had been rated, it would be for strong brutal violence, language, disturbing images, and some sexual material. If a child does see this, THEY WILL BE VERY DISTURBED. Trust me.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Greg Mottola's "Adventureland" is not exactly what you would think was coming. The actual quality hits from an angle, and it's hard to believe that it's really not a disaster. It's funny, charming, and very attentive to detail. This is how Mottola's piece gets an edge. Mottola himself worked at Adventureland, so the feel is authentic, and the memories are true to heart. He also has an eye for the right song, with Lou Reed as his weapon of choice and also replete with nice selections such as INXS and The Cure (with a fantastic "Just Like Heaven" scene), also poking fun at some cheesy and overplayed pop ("Rock Me Amadeus").

But it also is down-to-earth, and lovely in its small and sweet ways. Jesse Eisenberg plays it straight but charming as James, a dreaming young virgin straight outta college. When he doesn't have the money he needs for his European odyssey, he goes to work at the titular amusement park. The manager, Bobby (Bill Hader, showing true comedic power), is a nutcase. Other workers are slightly strange as well: Joel (Martin Starr) is a intellectual trapped inside of a park worker's body, and Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds) is a poser musician who pretends he's "jammed with Lou Reed," although he can't properly identify "Satellite of Love" ("Shed a Light on Love" LOL). There's also Em (Kristin Stewart), a beautiful girl living slightly on the edge (understandably). James falls immediately in love with her, and we know when he gets out of the pool with her at a party and James' idiotic friend (Matt Bush) loudly references a certain anatomical ailment that most men experience periodically. Connell also has a thing for Em, and this becomes the film's romantic tension, perhaps played a little bit too much. The best scenes where those heavily soaked in theme park days of yore, where games and rides are manned and summer hits high peak.

Mottola doesn't milk these out as much as he could have, but he makes those that he shows delights. He also writes a hilariously top-notch script of the highest comedic order. He is supplied only with the best, though. The chemistries that he develops throughout the film are unusual and excellent. For example, a great scene is when Starr and Eisenberg first banter, a fabulous introduction to the theme park atmosphere and a great showcase for two good actors. All-in-all, "Adventureland" is a fun, very humorous, and diverting look back onto golden years, one that will hopefully establish Mottola even more as one to bring it home. B+

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tell No One

"Tell No One" has potential as a good film and thriller, and it has chances where it is able to elevate above the formula that it has seemingly submitted to, but unfortunately, as the final shot soars above a quite familiar place, I was left confused and needing a little more. I was surprised how far I was drawn in. Guillaume Canet does a good adaptation of Harlan Coben (not that I've read the book or anything). I was touched by the story, in many respects. It's a devastating tale not unlike that of "Sporloos"("The Vanishing"): Alexandre (François Cluzet) takes his childhood sweetheart (apparently) named Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) to a special place where the two take a dip. They also get into a row and Margot walks away, hurt. She is then heard being beaten. As Alexandre tries to save her, he is knocked out, falling into the lake. The movie then goes ahead eight years, where a grieving Alexandre continues about his day as a doctor and creates seemingly meaningless friendships that help out later in the film. He also receives a note from an anonymous sender. This is a recipe for suspense. Canet tries to set up very well, but in places, I felt extremely aggravated. I guess this is the point, but he waits long before the film hits high tide, but from here, the film falls into a steady decline. The high tide is a fascinating, masterfully orchestrated chase scene. This seems to be where all the energy of Canet went to, and for these fleeting moments a felt a tide turn. But the rest of the film never reached this place. One detractor, of course, were the messily placed music cues, as random as U2's "With or Without You" when Alexandre is oddly running with his dog. With more strategic choices, the mood would have been boosted. Another great modification would have been to tinker with the preposterous explanation that the film tries to exit on (it fails miserably in my book). To conceal a simple plot would have been hard, apparently, so the mechanics were moved up a notch and thus the plot is a complex and ridiculous frivolity. With a little editing, "Tell No One" would be a brilliant piece, showing the strengths hidden beneath some of the unnecessary bulk. I was impressed, but in this business, the bait's only half the battle. B-