Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Ahhhh....Back to school. Sorry about the long lull there. It's tough to update a website when you don't have an internet connection. But, it's not hard to watch movies when you're waiting for internet, television and at one point basic utilities. So, in the next two or three weeks, expect a boat load of reviews coming your way. On tap are The Manchurian Candidate (2004 and 1962), The Village, Signs, Collateral, Without a Paddle, The Weather Underground, The Fog of War, and to top it all off, Baby Geniuses and SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2. Yep. I've seen them both. You don't want to miss those mini-essays. Come back soon and often. It'll be worth it.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Welcome to the future! Yeah, I know. I'm lame. But you love it. Anyways. I got nothing else on deck right now, but you never know when that'll change. So, keep coming back to the wonderful world of filmbrats.com
Review by Jon Waterman
In the future, robots will assist humans with daily life. They’ll start handling all the jobs that we don’t want to do. They’ll be ruled by three laws that force them to do everything in their power to keep humans safe. But, what if something goes wrong in the programming? What if one of the robots could ignore the three laws? What if one of those robots murdered its creator? With everyone in the world saying it’s impossible, one man must investigate this crime and prove them wrong.
The film takes place in the year 2035. So, that means in just 31 years, they’ll have completely restructured society to accommodate super high speed, self-driving cars, scanning security systems, overabundance of robot workers, etc. They better get started now. Why not set the movie in some year not in our lifetimes? We’d still believe it. If the only reason it’s set in 2035 is because the book was, then they really should have changed it. Virtually nothing is the same as the book.
Those expecting a faithful adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s story collection of the same name will be sorely disappointed. The only things that remain are a couple of character names, the title and the three laws of robotics. Detective Spooner, the lead role (played by Will Smith) is nowhere to be found in the book, nor is this storyline. But despite all of this, (the movie is just “suggested by” the book) writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman stay true to the spirit of Asimov. Nothing is as it seems and the ending is something of a surprise, although probably not as hidden as Isaac would like. They even inject humor in much the same way (a lot of it failed). The only thing that really differs is that Asimov tends to use the minimum amount of characters to tell the story. Here we have largely insignificant people like Spooner’s grandmother and this kid named Farber who shows up twice for no real good reason. I also could have done without the divorce story line that really amounted to nothing.
Also seemingly unneeded are the dizzying shots that circle around certain actions. It seems like they’re just showing off. Nothing on screen indicates a need for such hurricane-like camera work and I found it distracting. Most of it worked. The action was pretty clear cut and showed the battles between man and machine pretty clearly. However, I still don’t like the CG. Very early on, you can tell that nothing in the city was actually in the same room as Will Smith during shooting. It was a bad composite job. The robots look like everything else that’s computer generated. The main robot has some good subtle expressions going for it, but overall is still not my thing. Is there anything else they could have done to fix this? Redesign the robots so that people could fit inside. Film a few, copy and paste them into the army needed and there you go. It would look a lot better. The acting isn’t all that great either. Smith gives the best performance, which is all I’ll say about all that.
Overall, the movie is still a good one. It lacks the atmosphere of a “Blade Runner” but still has plenty of mystery and action to keep it entertaining and interesting throughout. It may not directly follow Asimov’s tale, but I think he’d still approve it as an extension of the book. It’s good to see that science fiction can still use it’s brain.
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
It's the hangover from drug day. Here I present Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (scroll down). That film takes place in the Garden State (another film that includes drug use). And then we're off to the future in I, Robot...coming soon. Enjoy.
Review by Jon Waterman
Andrew Largeman is a struggling actor in Los Angeles. His one claim to fame is his role as the “retarded quarterback” in a small-scale production. He’s struggling to find any sort of happiness out there and he’s in danger of losing his waiter job. To make matters worse, he just got a call from his psychiatrist father to tell him that his paraplegic mother died. Now he has to go back to New Jersey to face his family and all the old demons he left behind.
By the way, this is a comedy. You wouldn’t think it from the description, but it actually is quite funny. That doesn’t mean it has no dramatic tension or heart. It has that too. In fact writer/director/lead actor Zach Braff (from the TV show “Scrubs”), in his behind the scenes debut, shows that this year comedy can still work if it contains an emotional core. There’s humor in pain and Braff gives us everything from the awkward to the cathartic to the distracting (in a good way). There are also some good, cheap bathroom gags to go with the comic relief, but nothing goes too far or seems out of place.
Inside the comedic ball lies a tightly crafted story with well-developed characters. You’re never sure of anyone’s motivations, not even Largeman’s. Every little piece of history that’s given reveals a more complete profile of the complex personality. The dialogue is very natural and heartfelt. It’s very easy to get a quick preliminary read on each character only to have that perception expounded upon as the story progresses. Braff provides the piece to a puzzle you thought was finished.
Supplementing the exceptional writing is the exceptional cast. Braff himself as Largeman keeps it all inside while still being able to connect to the audience. Ian Holm as the accusatory father is brilliant as always in his small role. Peter Sarsgaard as grave digging friend Mark uses his physical creepiness to aid in his mysterious nature. Natalie Portman seems a little out of place as the eccentric Sam. But she works her way into it like Kate Winslet does in “Eternal Sunshine of the Eternal Mind.” All of the supporting characters are strong and all of them get their effective moments of depth or comedy.
Add to all this great cinematography and a wonderful score and you have not just a great debut feature, but you have a great feature. I can understand that not everyone would be interested in a tale of self-discovery and reinvention, but either way, it’s still worth seeing. It’s at least just as funny as most comedies you’ll see this year and this one adds some drama to the mix, too. I look forward to seeing what Zach comes up with next.
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Review by Jon Waterman
Harold and Kumar need to kick back and relax. Harold, as a number cruncher at some anonymous financial institution, is constantly being taken advantage of. Kumar is a med student genius that doesn’t want to enter the field, but has his doctor father on his back constantly about his failed interviews. What can they possibly do to relieve their pressure and stress? Oh, how about some primo weed? But where there’s smoke, there’s hunger. Only a small food can satisfy a craving so large. So, they head out to White Castle. What could possibly go wrong?
The title alone elicited a laugh out of me, but is there more to pot smoking journey than just a funny name? Yeah. There is. In order to fully enjoy the movie, you have to completely throw all realism out the door. Accept that anything can happen, just go with the flow and relax. After letting go, probably the most unbelievable thing in the film is that they continuously run into the same cast of characters repeatedly and hardly meet anyone new. There are plenty of supporting players to draw from, but it’s just a little odd that they don’t let any character go off into nothingness. They always get a resolution of sorts. That’s not necessary and not usually funny, either.
Unlike a “Half Baked,” you don’t need to have experience with drugs in order to really appreciate it or get some of the jokes. It’s more like “Dude, Where’s My Car?” (and directed by the same guy – the good TV director Danny Leiner) in that it seems like it’s about one thing, but really it takes you in all sorts of unexpected fun directions. Despite it being a pot movie, it’s not a pot movie. Sure the plot is driven by marijuana, but the movie is ultimately about the journey, the friendships and (surprisingly enough) the trouble with society. As sort of a reversal of comedic standards, the only people portrayed in a stereotypical fashion are white people. The film portrays various races and all the non-whites (including Jews) fail to conform to the compartments society has placed them in. On the other hand, white people are seen as unintelligent (the only group portrayed as such), narrow-minded jerks who think nothing more than about themselves. It’s a great satirical move and a lot of legitimately laughs come from it. I particularly liked the “Extreeeeeme!” guys.
The film shows that you don’t have to be white or black to effectively carry a movie. In fact, it’d be great to see this become a growing trend that could freshen up the Hollywood system a bit. John Cho (Harold) and Kal Penn (Kumar) have held smaller roles previously and show here that they’re underused, despite how many films they’ve been in. They’re probably the only ones that don’t overact. There are plenty of cameo roles from established names, but they all take it too far. Anthony Anderson and Neil Patrick Harris (in the worst bit role since Fred Savage in “Rules of Attraction”) make me want to punch things they’re so bad. Ryan Reynolds (Penn’s co-star in “Van Wilder”) is pretty funny as a doctor. However, Christopher Meloni and Jaime Kennedy steal the show away.
Is it the funniest movie? No. But it is actually funny. And it’s smarter than it sounds. Comedy is very tough to pull off. This one works well most of the time, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Welcome to drug day here at filmbrats. It's been a little while since I wrote something new. Below you'll find my review for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the companion piece to my review for Breakfast with Hunter, the documentary on Hunter S. Thomspson. As far as new films go, you'll see my thoughts on Maria Full of Grace if you scroll down, and also expect Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (another film with drugs as a plot-driver) and I, Robot later in the week. Don't forget to check out Joe's latest reviews as well. We're glad he's back.
Maria Full of Grace
Review by Jon Waterman
Maria lives in Colombia where she works in a flower shop de-thorning roses. In her town, this is probably the best job one could hope for even though the bosses work them too hard. All of her money goes to supporting her family including her out of work mother and sister (complete with baby). Maria wants out. She wants out of her job and out of responsibility for others. She wants to live for herself and not for the people who take her for granted. She finds a way to escape to the United States, but it requires making a difficult choice. She has to become a mule (traffic drugs through her stomach). Is this really what she wants?
New writer/director Joshua Marston comes out in full force in this emotionally charged film. At first what’s so surprising about this film is how an older white man can write such an in depth, personal story about a 17 year-old Columbian girl’s life. However, Maria goes through very typical teenage problems in her home country that lead to such atypical actions/resolutions. The resentment she has for her family is well founded and could easily be seen in the United States as well. It’d be pretty safe to assume that some young girls also turn to drug related businesses to escape or to better provide for the family they begrudge. So, the story obviously isn’t all too far-fetched.
In fact, the emotional outbursts and arguments and general social situations seen in Columbia throughout the first half of the film are very well written. Anyone can look back at their own pubescent life and recall similar situations and form a connection with Maria’s strife. That’s what makes it so difficult to see her get involved as a mule. We don’t want her to take that dark road, because we escaped and we know she could find another way too. Who knows what’s going to happen to her.
Another great aspect of the film is that you really don’t know what’s going to happen. There may not be significant 180 degree turns in plot and storyline, but unforeseen and (more importantly) un-foreshadowed obstacles arise with regularity. Also, whereas “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” somewhat glorifies drugs and makes something of a joke out of them, “Maria” handles them realistically. The effects of drugs aren’t really the main focus of the grit, but rather the horrors associated with the business itself.
The only real downside is that Maria, played by newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno, isn’t the best actress. She won best actress honors in Seattle’s International competition, but I found her performance to be a bit much. She’s not horrible, but she tends to overact. Only a couple of the smaller supporting characters truly seem like they’re comfortable in front of the camera and the rest don’t know what to do with themselves.
Other than the lack of appropriate body language and facial reaction subtlety, the movie is very interesting and quite gripping. It’s moving, powerful, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately cathartic. Marston avoids using clichéd devises, which make “Maria” look less like a glorified student film and more like the great professional drama it is. The cinematography and storytelling are superb. This is a very well done film that deserves to be seen.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Review by Jon Waterman
Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, a print journalist and his attorney, head to Las Vegas to cover a bike race called the Mint 400. Duke is locked and loaded with pen and paper and a suitcase full of various illegal substances. They partake in the suitcase’s offerings throughout and the race doesn’t seem to be so important anymore. Now they have to deal with everything going on around them (real and not) and find new ways to elude the cops for things they may or may not have done.
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s classic novel gets new life in director Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation. Gilliam is the man behind such visual feasts as “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Brazil.” “Fear and Loathing” proves to be no exception. The hallucinogenic journey provides the perfect backdrop to showcase Gilliam’s style. We’re treated to myriad lighting and color schemes, which contrast various locales and assumedly follow drug use patterns. The camera work is dynamic yet hardly ever frantic. It warps what the characters see without becoming one itself.
In addition to the fantastic directing, the acting ranks right up there. Johnny Depp as Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Gonzo are both incredible. They have to show these characters trying to fit in and come off as sober citizens when around the public while still keeping the paranoia and physical and mental twitches in the background. They also have to show the drug induced emotions and reactions in full force while locked away in their hotel rooms. It’s fascinating to watch them handle what could very well have been over-the-top portrayals in a subtler yet fully effective manner.
Now, despite how well made the film is, I still couldn’t get into it. And it’s tough to figure out why. Maybe it’s because I can’t relate to the mind altered state or the desire to achieve it constantly. The movie shows these guys under the influence of something at all times. We don’t see their true selves and maybe they don’t exist. As such, there’s no comparison and nothing to identify with. The movie isn’t solely about drugs. It’s about the death of an era (set in 1971) and a lifestyle and going out on one last hoorah. The narration by Raoul, lifted from the novel, is extremely eloquent and more profound passages should have been more frequent and prominent. Overall, it’s easy to watch the two-hour trip and have fun doing it, but at no point could I immerse myself fully and be there with them.
Thursday, August 05, 2004
Wow, I've seen three amazing films in the past three days. Not bad at all. Here'y my review of Michael Heneke's new film TIME OF THE WOLF ***contains spoilers*****
TIME OF THE WOLF (***1/2)
review by Joe Swanberg
If a disaster film like “The Day After Tomorrow,” with its state of the art special effects, had the intellect and emotional frailty of Micheal Haneke’s new film “Time of the Wolf,” another disaster film, in a sense, it might have an unheard of effect on an audience, possibly too strong to deal with.
“ Time of the Wolf” is an incredible film. Something goes terribly wrong, and we watch a group of people deal with it. The audience never finds out exactly what happened, but we know it’s bad. We know society has broken down and supplies are no longer available. We know it happened fast. But we don’t know what happened, and it doesn’t matter.
Within the first few minutes, Isabella Huppert, playing a mother of a teenage girl and a pre-teen boy, witnesses her husband shot to death by a vagrant. We don’t know why this man is in their cottage with his wife and son, but you aren’t given much time to wonder before he lays waste to the husband and sends Huppert and her children out into this new, post apocalyptic world. Old friends and neighbors will not let them in. They are forced to sleep in a barn. Only one woman will give them any food, claiming that Huppert was always right with her, and mentioning that her husband would kill her if he knew she was parting with the precious pieces of sustenance.
Eventually the three end up at an old factory, in the company of some strangers who are waiting for a train to come along. They figure they can bribe their way onto the next passing train. Where it would take them, one can only guess. Away, is probably the best answer. But in the mean time, there is very little drinking water, hardly any food, and not much to do.
This is somewhat familiar territory for disaster films, but Haneke has a subtle way of dealing with it that makes it seem a little bit more uncomfortable and real than the typical formula. The selfish one of the group, the one that comes closest to destroying everything, usually played by an upper class white male with shifty eyes and a twitchy nature who is almost always a businessman, is this time played by a young boy who has been forced to survive on his own. He figures it’s him against the world, and makes terrible decisions on his own, rather than joining with the group and being subjected to their rules. Huppert’s daughter tries desperately to get him to join the group, because deep down she feels that the boy will take care of her, but in the end, she sees him for what he is, a human who has been reduced to an animal, and she tells him, “you ruin everything.”
Huppert’s son is the character who makes the biggest transition during the film. He tries hardest to hold on to his innocence, to believe that he will eventually return to the world he knew, but in the final scene of the film, we watch the boy become a man, as he mistakenly tries to sacrifice himself to the fire, in the hopes that he will save the others. He has crossed the point of no return. He has accepted his new life and will now begin to make decisions based on what’s best for the group, for survival. He has become like the rest of them.
The pace of the film is slow and detailed. The shots are beautifully composed and say more about the characters and story than any dialogue ever could. There is hardly an inch of wasted space in any frame, and if the sound were to be turned off, I don’t believe the audience would feel lost at all. There is only a slight bit of music in the film, but it’s a nice addition. If only the massive visual splendor of a Hollywood disaster film could be combined with the devastating emotional splendor of this Austrian disaster film, we might end up being completely demolished as an audience.
Wednesday, August 04, 2004
Still haven't gotten around to I, Robot. I did see Maria Full of Grace, though. But in the mean time, check out my review for Breakfast with Hunter, a recent documentary on Hunter S. Thompson. Also coming is a companion review for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As your attorney, I advise you to check back often.
Breakfast With Hunter
Review by Jon Waterman
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Along with a re-release, a movie version is in the works. With so much attention being redirected to the outspoken, eccentric genius, what can be done to capture all the precious moments? Why, have a documentary crew follow you around and chronicle these resurgent years, of course.
It somewhat surprised me to see that Hunter allowed the camera to shadow his moves. I’m not very familiar with the man, and I always assume authors are reclusive and shun such massive amounts of attention so as to not reveal their true selves to the public. Thompson is different. Sort of. He has his moments of wacky antics and he acts on impulse with regularity. These shenanigans set the stage for his writings and for what to expect from his public engagements. To some extent this is his true self. We also see the artistic side coming out in discussions about the forthcoming movie. We see his political side in his ongoing court and election dealings. But he never talks to the camera. He never shows us any indication of where his talent or drive comes from. I know drugs play(ed) a significant role, but I don’t see the passion in his current life. I don’t see a desire to live when he sprays the fire extinguisher at people. I don’t see the will to create coming through. So, from what I gathered, Hunter is open to the public, but closed to the private audience.
In fact, the whole piece seems distant. At times when Hunter’s character is in question, the sequence is short and not thoroughly explored. A glaring instance of this is when illustrator Ralph Steadman confronts Thompson about why he wasn’t taken to Vegas and what his drawings really mean for the stories. In two years of filming, this was the only included conversation that indicated history or motivations and the audience gets closed out. In addition, the camera keeps space between itself and the subject. Sure, this allows for a quick shift of focus, but it doesn’t cater to any intimacy, which is needed in a documentary showing important events in one man’s life. Multiple cameras at times would have cramped the space some, but would have given more chances to capture important insert shots or emotional moments. It’s also distant due to the time frame. The film takes place in the late 1990s, but is released in the early-mid 2000s. Most of the events no longer foreshadow or get people excited because they’ve already occurred and there’s no surprise as to how the film is going to turn out or who will star or direct. Also, I found the lack of an epilogue a little disheartening considering the large gap and the unanswered questions (mainly about the court proceedings).
So far, it sounds like I hate the movie. I don’t. I think it’s very functional, but lacks introspection. I like that it avoids the talking heads or interview tactic and allows the events to tell the story. And the story is told effectively. Cross cutting between events and home life does give a well-formed picture of HST, albeit incomplete. Hunter himself is a fun character to watch and listen to (if you can understand what he’s saying) and his presence alone adds a little pop. It would have been nice to see how he came to be such an admired writer and icon. We were teased with old footage of his campaign to be elected Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, but little other historical background is given. There’s so much more to him and what he was and is that is left alone. The documentary is very much “In-the-now.” And “the now” has come and gone.
I saw a test screening of the new Mike Nichols film CLOSER last night, and it just might be my favorite film of the year so far. Here's my review
Tuesday, August 03, 2004
I attended a screening of Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny" tonight, with Gallo in attendance for a Q&A. You can read my review of the film here
. Gallo was a total charmer, and I think everyone walked away with more appreciation for the film and Gallo as an artist.