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by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

SUMMER’S HERE!!! and for the weekend beginning 9 May, here are the films in focus:

Speed Racer [rating: 10]

Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece

Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie. read full review…

[email protected] [rating: 9]

[email protected] is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural full review…

Surfwise [rating: 8]

(Surfwise) delivers facts with fanciful shading, sequences that explain the lure of the ocean with images of the vast waves washing over their would-be conquerors.

When it hit in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, surfing symbolized youth and vibrancy, extreme sporting reduced to sun, fun, and lots of bikini clad babes. But on the fringes of the misdiagnosed fad (it had been around long before Jan, Dean, and the Beach Boys discovered it) were those who viewed the ocean as one big spiritual adventure, a karmic mountain worth climbing and conquering as often as possible. Such a seafaring sage was Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. As one of the sport’s important pioneers, he left his job as a general physician (and a couple of bad marriages) to go on an odyssey of surf self discovery. And once he found his newest bride Juliette, he fathered a family of nine kids, raising them to be as free spirited and audacious as full review…

Redbelt [rating: 7]

(S)omewhere in Redbelt‘s running time it a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations.

David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage to grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo. read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

What Happens in Vegas… [rating: 3]

According to self-help gurus and others profiteering from the lovelorn and the lost, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. In this latest lame Romcom from Hollywood’s hopelessly quixotic hackworks, the cosmic realignment has put both parties squarely up Uranus. Making a pair of mismatched New Yorkers (she a power hungry professional, he a sarcastic himbo slacker) hook up over a Sin City shindig of too much booze and not enough brains is the very definition of a cliché. Having them win a $3 million dollar jackpot is aggravating icing on the cake. And let’s not even mention the court ordered six months of nuptials. Leave it to scorched Earth scribe Dana Fox to distill 100 years of he/she cinema into jokes about toilet seats and male horniness. She’s not helped by director Tom Vaughn. He relies on montages to get his mindless messages across, aiming for the cheap seats while never forgetting to pander, pander, pander. Luckily, stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton “I Have a Career, Why?” Kutcher keep things from meandering over into outright nausea. They salvage what little chemistry the movie can generate. The rest is just a pain in the asteroids

by Bill Gibron

1 May 2008

SUMMER’S HERE!!! and for the weekend beginning 2 May, here are the films in focus:

Iron Man [rating: 9]

Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more

It may have been the moment when Tobey Maguire went emo, a visual gag that gave longtime Spider-man fans a similar physical reaction. Or maybe it was the flailing Fantastic Four franchise, taken out of its superhero element to be forced and family friendly. The Phantom didn’t help, and Ghost Rider only staved off the inevitable. The superhero movie was hobbled, and having a hard time maintaining its cinematic relevance.

So when it was announced that Marvel would take control of its own brand and make its own movies from its catalog, some were skeptical. Hollywood knows about film, not a comic book company. Well, all doubts now need to be cast aside. Iron Man proves that, by going to the source, the genre has finally found someone who understands it implicitly. 
read full review…

Snow Angels [rating: 6]

For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie.

Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff. read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

The Visitor [rating: 6]

The United States, post-9/11 is a confluence of contradictions that would make even the most skilled sociologist wince with professional pain. On the one hand, we want to extend an olive branch to the rest of the world, convincing them that our time in Iraq is not a matter of hubris or revenge. But back at home, we want the borders closed, the airlines safe, and the slightest ethnic suspicion investigated fully. Into this new world sleepwalks Ivory Tower widower Walter Vale. Forced to leave his New England home for a conference, he returns to his unused New York apartment only to discover illegal squatters Tarek, an Arab, and Zainab, an African, living there. Agreeing to let them stay, they develop a nice liberal-lite living arrangement, and everything seems fine…until Tarek is arrested on a minor infraction. Before Walter knows it, his new found friend becomes part of America’s homeland security bureaucracy. All of this allows The Station Agent‘s Thomas McCarthy an opportunity to work out all his fixations and frustrations on our current cultural isolationism. His capable cast never lets him down, while the story occasionally strands the characters in the inviolable victim mode. Not a bad film so much as an underwhelming one.

by Bill Gibron

24 Apr 2008

For the weekend beginning 25 April, here are the films in focus:

In Brief

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay [rating: 5]

Is it possible to make a stoner comedy without actually showing your heroes wake and bake? Can a keen political satire be crafted out of obvious takes on the War on Terror and government incompetency? Both questions come up frequently in this relatively successful sequel to the 2004 pot party. This time around, our title characters are on their way to Amsterdam when their bong is mistaken for a bomb. They end up entering, and then fleeing from the infamous Cuban prison, hoping that a highly placed pal in Texas can bail them out. Kumar also wants to stop his ex-girlfriend from marrying this conservative cad. With the usually dependable Rob Corddry ruining every scene he’s in, and a great deal of inappropriate race baiting, first time directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who also wrote both films) use the “insult everyone equally” approach to avoid controversy. Still, when a sidesplitting smoke out only offers one real take on the toke (it arrives when our duo meet up with an equally Chronic prone George W. Bush), when it doesn’t have the nerve to argue the very policies it parodies, then we are dealing with some very cowardly comedy. Still, there are enough laughs - and stars John Pho and Kel Penn are more than winning - to sustain us through this uneven second helping. 

Baby Mama [rating: 2]

It’s about time someone stood up and told Hollywood the truth - children are not the creative cure-all a character needs. Giving a demanding, type-A personality a toddler will not instantly turn a control freak shrew into an Earth goddess. This applies to all zygote phase formulas as well. While many may see the names Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the marquee and think comic gold, Baby Mama is instead a loaded Pampers full of fetus poo. While the talent pool it’s drawing from is marginal at best (who still thinks Steve Martin is cutting edge?), there is no excuse for such unfunny business. Using caricature instead of personality (Fey is the square-glasses wearing dork, Poehler is the Big Gulp slurping stooge) and forcing everything through a sieve of ‘babies are adorable’ drek, we wind up with 90 minutes whinier than the population at a Day Care. Co-stars Greg Kinnear and Dax Shephard are clearly present to give men both sides of the bad name (wuss/asshole) and pop culture references have to pass for satire (yo, hip-hop is def!). While Fey had no control over the content (the crappy writing and directing are courtesy of Michael McCullers), she should have better career management. A film like Baby Mama could land you on the artistic adoption list forever.

by Bill Gibron

17 Apr 2008

For the weekend beginning 18 April, here are the films in focus:

Forgetting Sarah Marshall [rating: 8]

Written with a sensationally smutty Woody Allen expertise and loaded with big fat bawdy barrel laughs, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another wacked out winner

Apparently, Drillbit Taylor was just a fluke. After a year which saw comedy giant Judd Apatow score with Knocked Up, Superbad, and the highly underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2008 sure started off with a stumble. Though the former Freaks and Geeks creator who literally resuscitated the dying big screen laughfest played a small role in the Owen Wilson flop, some saw the underperforming picture as an indicator of a fleeting 15 minutes. Apparently the funny business funeral was scheduled a little early. Instantly becoming one of this year’s best films—humorous or not—the hilarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows that this satire sage and his gang of comic compatriots are not going anywhere anytime soon. read full review…

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? [rating: 7]

While premised on a search for the infamous terrorist kingpin, this is really more of a Lonely Planet for the limited attention span.

The information is eerily the same. A lack of education, unemployment, limited opportunities, rampant poverty, and future prospects that seem dim at best drive the problem. These young men, lives marginalized by a majority that doesn’t care, have no other outlet for their aggression. As a result, they become easy targets for gangs, groups that prey on such a disenfranchised feeling, using the rage to wage war on society. No, this is not some overview of the urban crime scene circa 1988. We’re not dealing with South Central Los Angeles or downtown Detroit. Instead, this is what Morgan Spurlock, famed documentarian (Super Size Me) learns when talking to people in the Arab world. He wants to figure out why Al-Qaeda is so seductive to supposedly sensible individuals. The answer, sadly, shocks no one. read full review…

88 Minutes [rating: 3]

While the actual ending does give audiences a reason to cheer, it’s the final fade out that will make viewers the happiest. It means this tepid terror is finally over.

Sometimes, the creative writing is splashed all over the workprint walls. Anyone seeing John Avnet’s name on the directing credits should take a moment to contemplate asking for their money back. After all, he’s been responsible for mindless dreck like Fried Green Tomatoes, The War, Up Close and Personal, and Red Corner. Not the greatest big screen resume. To make matters worse, he has teamed up with screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson, whose poisoned pen scribbled slop like K-911, K9-PI, Hollow Man, and The Fast and the Furious. What made either man think they could take on the by now stale serial killer thriller begs the question of their individual sanity. How they conned one of our greatest actors to lower himself to such a paycheck cashing conceit borderlines on the criminal. read full review…
Other Releases—In Brief

The Forbidden Kingdom [rating: 6]

One of the glorious things about Hong Kong action films is their unusual cultural conceits. Aside from all the butt kicking, the ability to see another tradition’s myths and legends brings a necessary surreal suspension of cinematic disbelief. So when West meets—and then mimics—East, the result is typically an awkward mishmash of misinterpretations. This is exactly what happens in Rob Minkoff’s routine rip-off of every Chinese folktale ever told, The Forbidden Kingdom. Representing the only time that martial arts icons Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in a film, the sloppy set up has the Monkey King frozen in time, waiting for a prophesied pawn to bring him his magic staff. Naturally, the immortal Jade Warlord wants to prevent his resurrection, so he sends out his many minions, including a white-haired witch, to battle our heroes. Chan and Li are magnificent, their big confront one of the most amazing fight scenes of all time. But it’s the American presence—Minkoff behind the lens, lame male lead Michael Angarano in front of it—that constantly countermands the action. We expect nothing but brilliance from our kung fu gods. Sadly, they are surrounded by entertainment-sapping stooges.

by Bill Gibron

10 Apr 2008

For the weekend beginning 11 April, here are the films in focus:

The Counterfeiters [rating: 8]

What’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era are reduced to a filmic footnote.

By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered. read full review…

The Dhamma Brothers [rating: 8]

(W)hat many will remember about this otherwise informative film is the way in which we get to know these men.

A comment from an official in charge of Alabama’s prison population says it all - the treatment of criminals in America has slowly shifted from rehabilitation and reclamation into society to pure, unadulterated punishment. It’s a waste, a warehousing mentality, the direct result of a sentencing guideline given where life without the possibility of parole is handed out with startling regularity…without consideration of the consequences or repercussions. Inmates don’t need care. They need caging. read full review…

Other Releases - In Brief

Street Kings [rating: 6]

There’s nothing new about crooked cops taking their suspect agenda out on unseemly street types for the sake of a morally ambiguous ends. Even more derivative is the double cross that ends up pitting police against each other in a surreal game of whose the most desperate and/or professionally bankruptcy. Coming from the pen of James Ellroy, who created the crackerjack L.A. Confidential, we have a Matrix-less Keanu Reeves as Detective Todd Ludlow, doing a decent job as an alcoholic hotshot who rights-violating past is coming back to haunt him. As an ex-partner prepares to rat him out to Internal Affairs, a gangland style assassination saves our hero’s reputation. But as he investigates the shooters, he stumbles upon a convoluted corruption storyline, complete with easily turned allies, unlikely suspects, and more oddball casting choices than a David Lynch drama. Training Day writer David Ayers delivers just enough moxie both behind and in front of the camera to keep us interested, and there are times when he even transcends the tired movie mechanics being employed. But Street Kings is not crime thriller royalty. Instead, it frequently plays like a perfunctory pretender to the throne.

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