Friday, January 29, 2010

The music/movie personality profile

This week I did not see a movie theatrically. This is a rare thing, but sometimes the slate of new release films is just too bleak and I don't have the courage to face them. So, I apologize to my regular readers for not having a movie review.
But I think I'll take this opportunity to write a bit more casually and candidly with you. After all, although I haven't met many of my readers, we still have a relationship as do all writers with their audience. If you are a first-time reader, welcome, how are you today?

Recently, I, and a lot of people I know, have been trying online dating. This includes the rather odd process of reading through people's profiles and judging them on a photo and the scant bit of information they have chosen to share about themselves.

One of the first things I check is where the person's taste in movies and music lies. This may sound superficial, but then again this whole process is a bit on the shallow side. You can learn a lot about a person based upon what they like, probably far more than any introductory paragraph they may write.

The other day, I was asked to weigh in on a profile. The person was disappointed that the woman in question was a big fan of Cyndi Lauper. This did not meet with his approval and he was going to toss her into his "no" pile. I think this was a mistake. Regardless of what one may think of Lauper as an artist, she is an idiosyncratic, fun and unique performer. If Lauper is someone's favorite artist this may be a good reflection of their own personality. Like Lauper, they may also be quirky and fun.

This got me thinking: Is it possible to define a person based upon their favorite musician or favorite movie? In a way, it would be like using one's taste in music and film as a horoscope or a Chinese Zodiac.

I tried this theory out on myself. My favorite band is The Beatles. I asked a friend what that said about me. The response was that The Beatles were an eclectic, multifaceted band living on a creative edge, so therefore perhaps someone who chooses them as a favorite is a well-rounded individual and a forward thinker. I'd like to think I am both these things.

My friend's favorite band is Nirvana. I told him I believe this meant that he has a pop sensibility that was in direct conflict with a desire to remain an outsider and that he was grappling with big ideas and big emotions. My friend liked this assessment. Perhaps there is some truth to this theory.

If you add in a person's favorite movie you get a more complete picture of a person's personality. Coincidentally, my friend and I have the same favorite film: “High Fidelity.” In both of our cases it is an accurate reflection of our obsessive interest in music and movies and of our bad luck with love.

I tried out my theory with one other friend. Her favorite band is Depeche Mode. Not being as well versed in Depeche Mode as I probably should be, I asked her how she would define the band. She said dark, creepy, introspective and intelligent. These were all aspects of her own personality too, but didn't quite bring across the whole picture. I felt my theory deflating.

But, there was still her favorite film to consider. She cited “One Crazy Summer,” a 1980s comedy, that incidentally, like “High Fidelity,” stars John Cusack. What is it with me, my friends and John Cusack? The film is goofy and off-beat with a central character in search of true love. Pair this with the Depeche Mode personality profile and this was another fairly accurate appraisal.

There is clearly more research necessary, but I think I'm on to something here and I'm asking you loyal readers to continue the study. Give it a try on yourself, family and friends. What do your favorites say about you?

Friday, January 22, 2010

'Book of Eli' an action film with a brain and soul

For the last couple decades, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of “Mad Max 4” being made. With the release of “The Book of Eli” that may be unnecessary.

“The Book of Eli” is a post-apocalyptic western very much in the “Mad Max” style, albeit a bit more meditative. Denzel Washington stars as Eli, a loner walking west on a mission to get a book to a safe location. Along the way he stops in a town run by the crooked Gary Oldman, who is desperately searching for the very book in Washington's possession. Inevitably conflict ensues.

It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the book in question is the last Bible in existence. Given that the film's central conflict is for the last known word of God, it is a relief that the film doesn't become a sermon. Too often religious centered films get weighed down in their own self importance and need to spread the word.

The lack of heavy-handed preaching in Gary Whitta's script allows the film to have a broader appeal. The overall theme of the importance of faith is tempered with a message that religion can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Oldman's character remembers the power of words in The Bible and wants to exploit them to control the people in his town. By not ignoring the ugliness that organized religion can bring out in people, the film is more realistic than the average religious parable.

At the end of the day this is also an action film and there are bursts of well-choreographed violence. Washington's Eli carries with him a very big, very sharp blade and he is well aware of how to wield it. He has a tendency of taking on large groups and leaving them all dead. The first time this is presented in the film it is done so in an effective, even artful, silhouette.

Directors the Hughes Brothers have created a familiar muted post-apocalyptic landscape. Although the look of the film, complete with burned out cars and poorly maintained roads, has been seen before it still remains effective.

The Hughes Brothers tend to go heavy on slow-mo walks towards the camera and low angle close up shots of characters backdropped by the sky. Both of these can be effective, but they are slightly over played here. Even so the Hughes Brothers know how to stage an action scene and they give the film an appropriately somber tone.

There is a big twist at the end that is a genuine shocker. Looking back on the film, there are hints pointing the viewer in the right direction. It is a film that needs to be seen again to go back and see how well the ending really works.

Washington, one of the few examples of a movie star who is also an exceptional actor, gives another reliably strong performance. He is required here to have moments where he is coolly tough and brutal and he does so with flare. He also keeps the performance grounded in real emotion. He is a quiet man, but when he speaks the words count.

It is great fun seeing Oldman relishing a chance to ham it up on screen as a bad guy. In the 1990s these sort of villain roles were Oldman's bread and butter. In films such as “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” he created baddies that audiences loved to hate.

There is also a strong supporting cast with familiar faces popping up in small parts. Tom Waits has a fantastic bit as a pawn shop owner that does business with Washington. Michael Gambon, familiar to many as Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” series, has an oddball bit as a survivalist. He has even less screen time than Waits, but he makes it memorable. Jennifer Beals, the star of “Flashdance,” also delivers a nice turn as Oldman's blind wife.

Mila Kunis, a fine comic actor who keeps popping up in action film that don't utilize her comedic abilities, has the third largest role after Washington and Oldman. As Oldman's stepdaughter, she switches sides and teams with Washington. She is adequate in the role, but unfortunately is the film's weakest link.

“The Book of Eli” is an action movie with a brain and a heart. For those who like to think just as much as they like to watch things blow up, here is a film is a good mix of both.

Friday, January 15, 2010

'Daybreakers' offers up vampires with a twist

Thanks to the “Twilight” series and the HBO show “True Blood,” vampires are back and hotter than ever, but “Daybreakers” isn't merely a film attempting to cash in on the latest trend. It is a fresh take on vampire mythology.

Set in 2019, a virus has transformed the vast majority of the population into vampires. So, if we survive the world ending in 2012 we have an eternity as vampires to look forward to. But you better hope you become a vampire because in this future the remaining humans are hunted and harvested for their blood.

Unlike the “vegetarian” vampires of the “Twilight” universe, these vampires can't survive on animal blood alone, without human blood they transform into mindless bat-like creatures. With humanity nearing extinction, a new blood source needs to be found.

Ethan Hawke stars as a vampire named Edward — clearly the name of choice for vampires right now — who is attempting to find a synthetic blood to little avail.
Edward is sympathetic to humanity and more than willing to help when he is targeted by a survivalist group of humans lead by Willem Dafoe, especially when informed they may have a cure for vampirism.

Writer/directors The Spierig Brothers have created a fully realized world full of little touches that make a big difference. They start from a strong central idea, not only are vampires the majority, but they live life much the same way they did as humans, except their work day begins at night fall. Sure, they have blood in their coffee instead of cream, but not much has really changed.

One of the most ingenious ideas of the film is that cars can enter a day-mode that blocks all the windows and allows vampires to see via video cameras. There's a fantastic car chase when Hawke first meets up with Dafoe. As they are pursued, bullet holes create deadly beams of light adding an extra level of tension to what would've been a run-of-the mill car chase.

In some ways the film recalls “Gattaca,” a film set in a future where genetically altered perfect people are seen as “valid” and normal people are as “invalid.” Hawke also starred in that film and perhaps it is only his presence that brings it mind. Although very different in style, both films cover similar territory.

As with “Gattaca,” Hawke is very good at playing a man who is part of society he hates, but must play along. When he is required to go hero it works as it is an extension of his character rather than an arbitrary plot development.

Dafoe is a scene stealer tossing out one-liners in southern drawl. He is an actor like Christopher Walken who has a way of saying a line like no one else. The only other actor of note is Sam Neill as the head of the corporation that Hawke works for. He is the film's villain, but Neill doesn't play him as a one-note baddie. Neill creates menace in his quiet, business-like manner, but he is not entirely unsympathetic.

Although this is a smarter than the average action-horror film, it is still very much a B-movie. This is not a negative. The film embraces aspects of the B-movie — extreme gore and cheesy one liners — and blends them with smart ideas and clever writing. The film updates vampires, but includes familiar motifs such as death by wood stakes. It isn't a perfect mix, but the care and intellect of the filmmakers helps make this fun entertainment.

Be forewarned though, this movie is not for the squeamish. There is plenty of exploding heads, decapitations, flesh ripping and projectile vomiting. It is all done in an over-the-top fashion, but even so, if blood and guts isn't your cup of tea then you best stay away. Horror fans, though, who find the sparkly vampires of “Twilight” to be nauseating will be thrilled.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ritchie's 'Holmes' is cheeky good fun

Arthur Conan Doyle's famous literary sleuth is transformed into an action star in director Guy Ritchie's “Sherlock Holmes,” an energetic revisionist take on the classic character.

Holmes fans who enjoy the detective prim, proper and uptight and his loyal cohort Dr. Watson to be rotund and aloof will scream bloody murder over the great injustice that has been done to these beloved characters.

As embodied by Robert Downey Jr., Holmes is unkempt and his living quarters a mess of research and experiments. He is a rogue who enjoys a bit of rough and tumble underground boxing. As for Watson, the idea of him as a fat older man is actually out of step with the source material and didn't become popularized until Nigel Bruce took on the role in his pairing with Basil Rathbone.

Watson was an ex-military man with a limp from a war injury and Jude Law portrays that, but doesn't make him weak because of it. The film depicts Holmes and Watson brawling with various crooks and henchmen. These fights are presented with Ritchie's typical, gritty visual flare.

Ritchie is a writer and director whose specialty is darkly comic British crime films including “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Although he didn't write “Sherlock Holmes,” the film very much feels in step with his previous films, albeit with the setting switched to 19th-century London. If you're willing to let go of some preconceptions of who Holmes is, Ritchie's sensibilities actually fit quite nicely within the Holmesian universe.

The screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckman and Simon Kinberg is peppered with barbed dialogue as Holmes bickers with Watson, insults Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and flirts with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the one criminal to ever outwit him.

One of the script's best devices allows the audience to hear Holmes thought patterns and see a preview of his plan of attack in fighting someone. It is a nice touch that feels in tone with the Holmes character. There's also a fabulous scene where Holmes roams the streets of London picking up seemingly random items as he quickly constructs a disguise.

The plot involves Watson leaving Holmes for married life much to Holmes' dismay. The villain of the film is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who appears to have cheated death and to possess supernatural powers. Holmes and Watson apprehended him in the first scenes of the film and it was Watson who pronounced him dead. Holmes uses this to pull Watson back into the game.

Downey and Law are both truly fantastic in their roles and they play off each other exceedingly well. Downey uses that same sort of off-the-cuff charm that helped make 2008's “Iron Man” such a success, and Law is a perfectly dry straight-man to the eccentric Downey.

Strong, who appeared in Ritchie's “Rocknrolla,” is a solid villain with a quiet intensity and creepy presence. McAdams, a versatile actress, holds her own when bantering with Downey, but feels somewhat out of place. Even so she's a likable screen presence and her return would be a welcomed one when the inevitable sequel is made.

There are several big action set pieces, including a spectacular one in a shipyard and thrilling climax on top of an unfinished Tower Bridge. Visually, as is true with all of Ritchie's films, there's a muted grimness that proves effective here. The recreation of 19th century is impressive and believable.

Overall, it is all pretty cheeky stuff, maybe a little too much so, but it also a whole lot of fun.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Reitman continues his directing hot streak with 'Up in the Air'

There's a lot of talk about “Up in the Air” being the movie of the year. It is being mentioned in connection with such great filmmakers as Frank Capra and Preston Sturges for its ability to blend humor and melancholy in a way that captures a specific moment in time. It is film worthy of such comparisons.

This is only director and co-writer Jason Reitman's third film, but in just three films, “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno” and now “Up in the Air,” he has revealed himself to be an assured, smart filmmaker. While all his films have received limited releases that went wider, make no mistake, these are polished, witty and intelligent mainstream films.

As was true with Capra and Sturges, Reitman works within well-known formulas, story arcs and character types, but within the familiar he explores ideas and emotions with an uncommon honesty. His films are stories of redemption or people seeing the error of their ways, but these well worn paths are walked in ways that are often unexpected.

The main character of “Up in the Air” is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who works for a company that sends out people like himself to fire people when their employer doesn't have the cojones to do it themselves. Given the state of our economy, business is good.

Ryan is also a motivational speaker who tries to convince people that living without the weight and baggage of a home and family is ideal. For Ryan putting down roots is death for a human being and so he keeps in the air for all but a few weeks of a year. His home is airports, airplanes and hotel rooms and he is perfectly happy that way.

His livelihood his threatened when his boss (Jason Bateman) takes a shine to an idea presented by a young new employee (Anna Kendrick), who says expenses can be cut if they fire people via video chat. Ryan is forced to take Natalie with him on the road (or rather the air) in an attempt to prove her wrong. While flying across the country Ryan meets Alex (Vera Fermiga, “The Departed”), a woman who appears to have his same view on life and that turns him on.

On the page Ryan doesn't seem like he should be a likable character. As an audience, we shouldn't like him and yet we do, and that is largely because he is embodied by Clooney, one of the few, perhaps the last, true movie star in the classic Hollywood sense. Like Cary Grant, James Stewart or Gary Cooper, he is able to play charismatic men with a sharp wit. Even when his characters aren't cut from an everyman cloth he still manages to exude the vibe of one.

This isn't only Clooney's show, he has strong support from his leading ladies.
Kendrick, whose biggest previous credit is a small role in the “Twilight” series, gives a breakout performance. She is perfect as a very particular kind of ambitious college grad who enters the work field with something to prove. Kendrick presents a confident facade that she knows better than her elders, but also shows in quiet facial expressions and small gestures that she fears she may not be able to walk what she talks.

Fermiga has an easygoing chemistry with Clooney and matches him on every level as they flirt and banter. Fermiga and Clooney are both playing adults, and what I mean is that it is rare that characters in mainstream films are written and allowed to be played as smart, well spoken adults. Even in the third act when their relationship seems to be heading to a conventional conclusion they are both allowed to stay human rather than gears in a plot.

With the exception of a few familiar faces, all the people fired in the film are real recently fired people. Reitman told them to treat the camera like the person who fired them and respond as they did or as they wished they had. This gives an emotional realness to these scenes with reactions that range from amusing to heartbreaking.

This is often a very funny film, certainly funnier than you'd expect a film about firing people would be, but given the subject it is inevitable that there is a sense of pain and tragedy. Reitman balances this material with a fine and compassionate touch that never laughs at the misery of others.