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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fond memories of terrifying killer robots

Since its $242 million release, I've directed an outlandish amount of ire at James Cameron's space-cats extravaganza, Avatar. But I wasn't always, in the words of South Park, a cynical asshole that hated everything.

I'm sure that, on a subconscious level, part of my frustration is that in my younger years, I absolutely loved Cameron's work. I loved The Abyss, which is basically the same movie asAvatar, except there are characters instead of caricatures. I love the thrilling horror-adventure Aliens, even though it's a complete tonal departure from the superior original. But the most amazing Cameron film of them all, though, is without a doubt one of the greatest action movies ever made — Terminator 2.

In the summer of '91, T2 was everywhere. Posters for the movie were ubiquitous, and my Saturday morning cartoons were packed with ads for various Arnold-shaped toys: action figures, video games, playsets where you could mold "flesh" onto a hellish endoskeleton. The movie looked incredible. "Hasta la vista, baby" was on the tip of pop culture's tongue. I was certain I was the only person on the planet who didn't see it, and that by all accounts, it was the greatest thing to strike the silver screen since the creation of celluloid.

But for a long time, my parents were fairly strict about the amount of television and types of movies I was allowed to see. Even The Simpsons was verboten. So an ultra-violent epic about time-travelling robots that shoot and stab scores of innocent bystanders, all in the interest of either preventing or ensuring a horrifically-depicted nuclear apocalypse, would probably not get past my parental censors.

So I did what any kid would do. I saw it on VHS at my cousin's house.


Terminator 2 was a smash hit when it was released twenty years ago, and rightfully so. It works as a standalone film — I didn't see the original until the late 90s — and it blends exhilarating action sequences with a fascinating backstory (see: time traveling killer robots) that is flush with Cameron's wry sense of humor and his typical moral takeaways of the importance of humanity. As an adult, I'm still thrilled by the chases and shoot-outs, impressed by the restrained use of nearly-seamless CGI, and am amazed that I don't groan cynically when Sarah Connor tells us that if "a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of a human life, maybe we can, too."

The message works — and, in turn, elevates the entire movie, because it is not a tacked-on sentiment. The value of human life is a theme that plays from the very first frames, when a typical hot day in LA is transformed into the skeleton-littered battlefield of tomorrow.

Sarah Connor knows it's coming, what's at stake, and that any collateral damage before August 29th, 1997 wouldn't be a big deal after the entire world was turned to ash and twisted rebar. The source of her transformation to a restrained optimist by the film's end (aside from the obvious thrill of averting future catastrophe) is that a machine identical to the one sent to kill her in the first movie (except this one has eyebrows) is taught by a boy that killing is wrong. It's incredibly basic, but as John Connor teaches the machine grade-school lessons in humanity, Terminator 2 is elevated from an action horror flick to a sci-fi morality play.

On paper, the themes wouldn't impress a high school civics teacher. In the context of the storyworld, though, it's plausible. Even killer robots can learn empathy. It's something that a nine-year-old kid would find heart-achingly poignant.


When I was nine, it was heart-achingly poignant. I thought the film was an extraordinary feat — overwhelmingly exciting and thought-provoking without being (too) hokey. And I loved James Cameron for being able to do that in just over two hours with a directorial deftness that continues to impress me to this day.

Cameron never again captured my imagination the way he did with Terminator 2. In 1994, he taught us that Bill Paxton is a scumbag and Harrier jets exist; in 1997, he proved women love Leonardo DiCaprio. In late 2009, he showed us people will sit through anything so long as it's packaged well.

When I was a child, I was sad to see the terminator disappear in the vat, because it meant John Connor was losing the best chance he had for a stable father figure.

Now, when I see that thumb light on fire and slip below the surface, and the CPU shutting off for the last time, it reminds me of the last time I unconditionally loved the narrative work of James Cameron.


This piece was originally written as a part of the excellent 90's Nostalgia Series at The Junior Varsity, and was carefully edited by my dear friend Mike Placito.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Black Swan in a nutshell


Black Swan is a drama about a dancer pushing herself to her limits to achieve perfection.

Black Swan is a tragedy about a mother trying to protect her daughter from falling off the deep end, even through she's partly responsible for her daughter's neurosis.

Black Swan is a coming-of-age tale of a young woman getting in touch with her repressed sexuality, stunted by both her home life and single-minded pursuit of being an impeccable dancer.

Black Swan is a horror movie about a woman's descent into abject madness, wherein the use of mirrors, long a cliché, feels delightfully fresh.

Black Swan is a companion piece to Aronofsky's The Wrestler, another story of an otherwise broken individual that only knows how to live through performing their craft.

Black Swan is the same movie as The Wrestler, except the low-brow "art" of wrestling is replaced by ballet — perhaps the most visual, enduring, and universally accessible performance art of our entire species.

Black Swan is nothing like Aronofsky's previous movie, The Wrestler.

Black Swan is a dark comedy, a drama that is so incredibly over-the-top, with histrionics and music cues, that one can't help but laugh.

Black Swan is Oscar bait for Natalie Portman, who gave one of the most thrilling screen performances in recent memory.


I have no idea what Black Swan was. All I know is that I loved it.



This article was originally written for and published at The Junior Varsity.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: a brief review of every new release I saw this year

Leonardo DiHapprio was in several hit movies this year!

It’s the end of yet another year, and while most people are reflecting on serious personal matters like their careers, relationships, and sores that refuse to heal, I’m reviewing the list of every movie of 2010 I saw. I felt like I saw far fewer movies this year than last - but I was wrong.


Youth In Revolt
Am I wrong, or does it seem like this movie came out three years ago? Michael Cera does his typical shtick as an awkward kid that decides to go bad to win the girl of his dreams. Adapted from the novel of the same name, Cera’s dream girl Portia Doubleday twists him into a fire-starting, car-stealing miscreant. I read a script for this several years ago and enjoyed it, the film is ultimately forgettable but is held afloat by some great supporting actors, including Zach Galifianakis, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, and Steve Buscemi. IHYFM rating: 2.5/5 MEHs.


Red Riding Trilogy
Originally produced as a miniseries for BBC 4, it was released in the US this past year as a trilogy. Billed by Slate as British version of The Wire, it follows journalists, detectives, and private eyes over many years as they’re all torn apart by a series of murders, in part inspired by the real-life Yorkshire Ripper. It is excellent, but my enjoyment was diminished in part by the fact I viewed the entire trilogy over St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Chicago, which is essentially a city-wide 72-hour hangover. There’s many recognizable actors, including Andrew Garfield (The Social Network and the incumbent Spiderman), Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum, Cinderella Man), and Mark Addy (the fat funny Brit from everything). Definitely worth viewing over the course of a week or two. IHYFM rating: 4/5 MEHs.


Shutter Island
Even more perplexing to me than the massive pop-culture orgasm Shutter Island caused was how quickly it seemed to disappear from the collective consciousness. I don’t think the fact I read an early script back in 2005 contributed to my feeling the film was a letdown - technically well-made, but boring, long, and completely obvious. When names like Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Ruffalo, I expected a lot more than I received. I previously dared anyone that felt passionately otherwise to defend the film, but it turns out I was shouting into the void. IHYFM rating: 3/5 MEHs.


The Crazies
A decent remake of the 1973 thriller by George Romero that pits Timothy Olyphant, small-town sheriff, against infected townsfolk and a military strike force trying to wipe the virus off the face of the earth. Not terribly good, but not too bad: perfect for throwing on your streaming Netflix when you’re busy doing something else. IHYFM rating: 3/5 MEHs.


Green Zone
I actually did not finish watching this movie. When it came from my Netflix queue, I put it on, and almost immediately lost interest in what was essentially Paul Greengrass’ fourth entry into the Bourne franchise, except Matt Damon is a soldier looking for evidence of WMD’s, that, shocker, aren’t anywhere to be found in Iraq. After a painfully obvious and preachy scene about civilians not having any water or something, I turned it off. Not because it offended my political views, but because it offended my sense of basic decent storytelling. IHYFM rating: never TBD.


Hot Tub Time Machine
The much-anticipated screwball time-travel farce only delivered a fraction of the self-aware laughs that seemed possible, leading some critics to call it one of the worst movies of 2010. While I was a bit let down by an over-reliance on lowbrow scatological humor, there were decent laughs throughout delivered by the core cast of John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke, along with Lizzy Caplan, Chevy Chase, and Crispin Glover, whose running gag was hands-down the best of the film. No pun intended. IHYFM rating: 3.5/5 MEHs.


Kick-Ass
Add it to the list: another comic-book movie with a lot of potential that the final product wasn’t able to live up to. The premise is good - a high school kid takes it upon himself to be a super hero, and crosses paths with the real deal, a foul-mouthed tyke with an axe to grind played by the scenery-chewing Chloe Grace Moretz (who also played a neck-chewing vampire in this year’s remake of Let The Right One In). The scattered plot loses steam going into the third act, but some terrific, if not disturbing, action sequences made the movie a forgettable but interesting enough diversion. For once, Nic Cage’s over-acting fits. IHYFM rating: 3/5 MEHs.


The Good, The Bad, The Weird
The Asian western catalog of Sukiyaki Western Django and Tears of the Black Tiger were joined by a third installment this past summer when the 2008 Korean film was released in the US. Starring Kang-ho Song, from the excellent films Thirst and The Host, Kim Jee-woon’s homage to spaghetti westerns takes many cues from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in a tale of treasure hunters in Manchuria where fragile alliances are forged and broken. It’s a lot of fun, and features one of the best Mexican standoffs and ensuing shootouts I’ve ever seen on film. For fans of Sergio Leone, I couldn’t recommend the movie enough. IHYFM rating: 4/5 MEHs.


A Nightmare on Elm Street
The remake of Wes Craven’s classic was completely unnecessary, and mostly ridiculous. The addition of microsleep, though, made for a nice extra addition of scary vulnerability for the terrorized teens. The back story of Freddy Kruger, now played by the very good Jackie Earle Haley, is unnecessarily brutal, which left a sour taste in my mouth. The fact I laughed hysterically at the first death of the movie, to the horror of everyone else in the theater, probably says enough. IHYFM rating: 2/5 MEHs.


Human Centipede: First Sequence
Wait, I didn’t actually see this. I just listened to Daniel Tosh recap the entire thing.


Iron Man 2
Good - Scarlett Johansson in a cat suit. Bad - weak pacing, forcing The Avengers subplot, an underutilized Mickey Rourke, obvious ‘final showdown’ ending, the unnerving feeling the movie was shot on the second draft of the script, over-reliance on AC/DC to make me feel the action I saw on screen was actually badass. Weird - posthumous DJ AM. IHYFM rating: 2.5/5 MEHs.


Metropolis (2010 reissue)
Some lost-and-found footage, while in pretty poor condition, really fleshes out the 1927 Fritz Lang classic. Found in Buenos Aires in 2008, several scenes are extended and a few new short ones are added, giving a little more insight into the characters and what is happening in the story. The tale of workers rising up against an indifferent puppet master, and the ensuing chaos, is as vital today as it was then. I was one of the few to catch it at the Music Box theater, which with the vines and columns in it's smaller second screening room, felt amazingly appropriate. IHYFM rating: 5/5 MEHs.


MacGruber
Add it to the long list of SNL crossovers that failed to make a splash at the box office. Overwhelmingly negative reviews, starkly contrasting the rave ones the film received at SXSW, helped the Will Forte vehicle limp into 6th place opening weekend. My buddy and I are convinced that we were some of the few people in the entire state of Illinois to see it, and he said he was glad that we caught a matinee, otherwise he would have felt ripped off. I can’t help but agree - some truly hysterical moments are weighed down by some seriously long stretches of nothing. Will it be a cult classic, though? We’ll see. IHYFM rating: 2.5/5 MEHs.


Get Him to the Greek
If any comedy was stocked with characters waiting for a spinoff feature, it was 2008’s excellent Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Russell Brand reprises his role as Lothario musician Aldous Snow, who is being escorted by Jonah Hill in a role unrelated to his original one in Marshall. Although some serious momentum is lost in a later scene with Hill’s girlfriend, played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, it’s a pretty enjoyable romp, and certainly one of the better comedies of the year. P Diddy steals every scene he’s in, especially the meme-tastic ‘furry wall’ sequence, and even steals one he’s not in, just by performing a voice over for a text he sends Hill. It never could fill the enormous shoes of Marshall, but Get Him to the Greek makes an admirable effort. IHYFM rating 4/5 MEHs.


Marmaduke
Ugh.


Toy Story 3
As we discussed over at The Junior Varsity, the Toy Story saga reaches a bittersweet finale that moved me in ways few other films managed to this past year. It sounds as though Pixar is going to make a push for the film to snag the Best Picture Oscar. I have no problem with this. IHYFM rating: 5/5 MEHs.


Cyrus
I can’t blame Jonah Hill for having a weird Oedipal thing for his mother when she’s played by Marissa Tomei. John C. Reilly stars in the Duplass Brothers film about a sad-sack divorcee trying to make a go of it with another divorcee. Matt Walsh and Catherine Keener playing supporting roles was a bonus for me in this interesting dark comedy. 4/5 MEHs.


Predators
Pretty much the only thing I remember from this movie is that shot from the trailer where Adrien Brody is lit up with targeting lasers is that in the actual movie, there’s only one. Maybe two. Also, Topher Grace is in dire need of another Ocean’s sequel for a cameo. IHYFM rating: 2/5 MEHs.


Winnebago Man
A funny, and occasionally heartbreaking and poignant look at the man behind one of the first ever viral videos. An essential documentary from 2010. IHYFM rating: 4.5/5 MEHs.


Inception
The biggest movie of the summer spawned a lot of backlashes, and backlashes to the backlashes, for being either too smug, or not inventive enough, or merely complicated without being smart. Whatever. This was hands-down one of the most entertaining movies of the year, if nothing else, because it wasn’t a remake or adaptation. IHYFM rating: 4/5 MEHs.


Dinner for Shmucks
An innocuous, but not memorably funny, comedy with Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Zach Galifiankis, based of the French film The Dinner Game. Worth the watch if you like the cast and aren’t expecting anything groundbreaking. IHYFM rating: 3/5 MEHs.


The Other Guys
Director Adam McKay again teams up with Will Ferrell for a surprisingly conventional farce when compared to their past collaborations. Ferrell costars with Mark Wahlberg as two NYPD detectives trying to blow the lid off a ponzi scheme. Filled with some truly funny set pieces and great bits by Michael Keaton and Eve Mendes made for a very enjoyable comedy. Bonus - take a listen to McKay’s interesting interview on the essential WTF Podcast with Marc Maron about some of his motivations for making a ponzi scheme a plot point, but why he doesn’t go farther with it. IHYFM rating: 4/5 MEHs.


Scott Pilgrim Versus The World
As a big fan of Edgar Wright’s previous films, Shaun of the Dead and the vastly overlooked Hot Fuzz, I was a little let down by a film that seemed to only play with conventions visually as opposed to thwarting them thematically. The film looks spectacular - great editing, cinematography, and production design really make the film pop. Sadly though, I felt a little bored as most of the beats were pretty similar. Throw in a rocking soundtrack produced by Beck, though, and you have a movie that is worth the time if you have nothing better to do. IHYFM rating: 3/5 MEHs.


Machete
Yes, we all know it started as a fake trailer in Grindhouse, and why not have Danny Trejo wander around slashing folks for two hours if you can. A decent action movie, and a far more interesting immigration farce, Machete gets some serious leverage from the fact it was released around the same time as the Arizona immigration law. Robert DeNiro is a lot of fun as the gun-toting hardline Gubernatorial candidate, and you get to see Jessica Alba’s sideboob! Bonus - weird metaphor for Linsay Lohan’s entire life as she plays a coked-out skank that tries to redeem herself in the end. IHYFM rating: 3.5/5 MEHs.


The Town
A by-the-numbers heist saga set in the roughest parts of Boston. I’m not sure if I was underwhelmed because of the sheer awesomeness of Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, or because the whole movie felt like a low-grade rehash of Heat, but regardless, I was shocked at the mostly-very-positive reviews the film received. No love lost for Affleck, Jeremy Renner, or Jon Hamm, though. IHYFM rating: 2.5/5 MEHs.


The Social Network
It’s David Fincher’s best film since Zodiac, and arguably the best film of the year. Nevermind what it does or doesn’t get right about the actual history of the founding of The Facebook, The Social Network is an engrossing cautionary tragedy that’s incredibly well-made. Additionally, Trent Reznor's soundtrack is fantastic, and will hopefully get an Oscar nod. IHYFM rating: 5/5 MEHs.


Inside Job
How, exactly, did we get into the financial mire our country’s been stuck in for the past two years? Director Charles Ferguson demonstrates with chilling simplicity how firms like AIG were able to make untold millions betting against themselves. Although he too often tries to verbally corner his less than admirable interviewees, and the final moments are quite pandering, it nevertheless is an infuriating examination of our undeniably broken financial system. Client 9 himself, Eliot Spitzer, comes off well to boot in an amusingly self-aware comment. IHYFM rating: 5/5 MEHs.


Jackass 3D
If your idea of a hilarious time does not include someone taking a surprise dump, maybe this movie isn’t for you. While tamer than the previous Jackass installments, 3D delivers plenty of laughs, and additionally makes some sly commentary on the nature of 3D film making. IHYFM: 4/5 MEHs.


I Am Comic
A documentary interviews several big names, and several small ones, on the craft and history behind stand up comedy, and the life it can lead to. In part it follows retired comic Ritch Shydner, who finds he really misses performing, most notably in a heart-wrenching scene where he watches Todd Glass perform. Interesting, slow at times, but absolutely worth it if you’re a comedy nerd. One of the highlights is footage from a hidden camera Andy Kindler wears while on stage. IHYFM rating: 3.5/5 MEHs.


Due Date
“Hey, remember how much you liked The Hangover? Todd Phillips made another movie with Zach Galifianakis! Also Robert Downey Jr.! That sounds good, right?” There’s some good laughs, but ultimately it’s another forgettable comedy that relies heavily on Galifianakis. IHYFM rating: 3/5 MEHs.


127 Hours
James Franco seemed to be everywhere this year, and has received well-deserved accolades for his portrayal of Aron Ralston, the real-life amateur spelunker who cut his own arm off in 2003 after it was pinned under a boulder. Credit is due to director Danny Boyle who keeps the movie visually interesting throughout despite the obvious limitations, and don’t be surprised if Franco earns a Best Actor nomination this winter. IHYFM rating: 4/5 MEHs.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
I saw this because a buddy moving out of town wanted to see it with a group. They caught me up to speed (the last one I saw was the one with the weird scary mermaids) so I wouldn’t be lost. At the end of the movie, I said it was as boring as The Two Towers, but with more walking. Guess I’m not in the target audience. IHYFM rating: whatever.


Tron: Legacy 3D
A friend asked me what I thought of this after I saw it. I told them that, as a two-hour-long 3D music video for a Daft Punk album of atmospheric techno, it was okay. Wait for the three good fight scenes to be on YouTube. And the totally forced shot of Olivia Wilde on a couch. IHYFM rating: 2/5 MEHs.


True Grit
The Coen Brother’s remake of the John Wayne classic, based off the 1968 Charles Portis novel, is as close to a straight genre film as they’ve ever made. Despite that, it takes some darkly humorous stabs at our perception of what the old west truly was, and is as good as any other recent film they’ve made. Not the best, but as good. Great performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and the young Hailee Steinfeld. IHYFM rating: 5/5 MEHs.




Still on the list from 2010:
There were a lot of films with rave reviews, or at least interesting premises, I either missed in theaters or have yet see. To my credit, I did spend over half my weekends in a theater. That's worth something, isn't it?


Black Swan: Darren Aronofsky's ballet dancer drama has been blowing viewers away.
The King's Speech: Historical dramas + excellent cast = surefire Oscar bait.
Holy Rollers: I heard the Jesse Eisenberg caper was very interesting. This time, he doesn't steal the idea for Facebook, though.
The Kids Are All Right: The better of two artificial insemination comedies this year, not that it sounded like The Switch was a tough one to top.
Exit Through The Gift Shop: It's already on Netflix Instant, so I have no excuse to not see the Banksy-featuring documentary that had critics raving.
Four Lions: A dark comedy that's equal parts The Office and Paradise Now. Apparently that can work.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: The only documentary that could possibly be nominated for Best Makeup Effects.
Winter's Bone: Friends have told me I need to see it. I have no idea what it's about, except, I think, bad stuff in the woods.
Howl: James Franco does poetry in New York. Okay.
Restrepo: Another documentary already on Netflix Instant, this one about the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Countdown to Zero: It's An Inconvenient Truth, except with nuclear weapons. Fun for the whole family!
The American: A George Clooney thriller that's undeniably European in style - depending which critic you read, that's either great or awful.
Easy A: Emma Stone... makes me unable to say anything coherent.
The Virginity Hit: The Adam McKay-Will Ferrell-produced pseudo-documentary takes American Pie to another level of outlandishness.
The Boxing Gym: A documentary about... a boxing gym. Well-reviewed by the few critics that saw it.
Mother: I like my foreign movies chock full of drama, dark comedy, and awesomeness, which the director of The Host is more than capable of delivering.


On a personal note, I'd like to thank everyone who's enjoyed reading reviews and snarkisms here over the past year. As you undoubtedly have noticed, my pace has dropped the past few months, due to several in-progress writing projects that have consumed a great amount of time. Although I do plan on continuing to post the occasional review here and at The Junior Varsity, the pace likely won't increase for a while. I'd encourage you to bookmark The JV, as well as follow me on Twitter, where it's a lot easier to throw my thoughts into the void, as well as communicate with anyone listening. If it ever comes to pass that something I've written or produced is ready to be taken down a notch by an anonymous internet miscreant, I'll let you all know. In the meantime, though, thank you again for your patronage, and please have a safe and wonderful new year, filled with only the highest quality filmed entertainment.

Best,

Joe