Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

SIDE EFFECTS (2013) - directed by Steven Soderbergh

Today’s my 31st birthday and I decided to take in Steven Soderbergh’s latest, SIDE EFFECTS. The trailer looked very promising and the prospect of seeing two of my celebrity crushes – Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rooney Mara – sharing some “quality” screen-time was too much to pass up.

SIDE EFFECTS, at least for me, played like a combination of David Mamet’s masterful THE SPANISH PRISONER (1997) and Soderbergh’s own THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (2009). In the case of the former, SIDE EFFECTS is driven by a very Hitchcockian plot with twists and turns that may seem convoluted at first, but resolve themselves quite nicely by the end. And in the case of the latter, the film’s aesthetic seemed like a throwback to the shot-0n-video cinematography of that picture.

The film offers a very interesting perspective on antidepressants that ought to play well to the conspiracy theory crowd who believe psychotropic drugs induce suicidal and/or homicidal tendencies in users. Whether or not the intention of the screenwriter was to prove the Alex Jones’ of the world, right, is debatable, but there’s an undeniable anti-psychiatry message here that will certainly polarize audiences depending on one’s view on the subject.

Personally, I think psychiatrists are a little too eager to prescribe medications for patients who may very well just need a foundation of love and support from family and friends in order to cope. That isn’t to say that there aren’t people who legitimately need antidepressants. But at the end of the day, psychiatry (in collusion with the pharmaceutical industry) is a business like any other, and you can’t honestly say with a straight face that they don’t receive some kind of “kickback” for prescribing certain meds. And as quick as they are to push a product, they’re even quicker to back off when it blows up in their face vis-a-vis a major crisis that ends up having been caused by said medication.

SIDE EFFECTS examines this issue quite brilliantly and will certainly leave you with much food for thought.

 

 

 

 

AMOUR (2012) - directed by Michael Haneke

It’s been said that the three most difficult words to utter in the English language are, “I love you.”

Personally, I couldn’t disagree more.

If anything, people are way too generous with their usage of the “L-word” as evident by its application in a plethora of situations in which the true meaning of the word is eroded by circumstances such as supplicating a scorned lover or bribing someone into getting what they want.

It would appear that very few people know what it truly means to love someone.

I’ve been very fortunate in that for the past three years, I have shared my life with my soul mate, my best friend and my wife and we discovered through some recent tough times, just what it means to genuinely love someone. It’s during these times that I reflected just how important that bond between two people can be when it’s tested by the vows of “for good times and bad” you exchange at your wedding. Any couple can be “lovey dovey” but when push comes to shove, it’s how you handle the true tests of life that involve sacrifice and hardship that ultimately determines just how much you love your partner.

Michael Haneke’s AMOUR is a tour-de-force of a picture that examines the true meaning of love and asks its audience what they would honestly do for the person they love. Depending on your answer to that question, AMOUR ends on a heartbreaking note of tragedy or on a note of empathy that may be initially heartbreaking but fundamentally leaves one with a feeling of understanding that if one were put in the same predicament, one would act in the same fashion.

Not since Steve McQueen’s SHAME (2011) has a film left me feeling shaken to my very core. Given the intense and profoundly deep bond I have with my wife, the idea that we could grow up to become these two characters and face a similar set of circumstances had me in tears and truly made me question to what extent would I be willing or even able to do what they did.

Ironically enough, for a film as deeply upsetting as AMOUR can get, I couldn’t recommend a better film in time for Valentine’s Day as again, depending on your outlook on love and what it means to love your partner, AMOUR is certainly a discussion-starter and will have you talking amongst yourselves long into the night regarding the nature of your relationship and the strength of your love for each other.

From a technical standpoint, I was very impressed with the confidence of Haneke’s direction. AMOUR in many respects feels like a throwback to the films of Ozu in its simplistic approach to cinematography. Haneke is so assured in the strength of his material that rather than bedazzle his audience with a barrage of fancy shots and quick editing, he simply plants his camera on a tripod and lets entire sequences go by without ever cutting and or even moving the camera. Now that’s a director!

I also enjoyed the subdued approach to sound employed throughout the film. From the music-less opening and closing credits to the rather sparse soundtrack accompanying the more intense dramatic sequences that would otherwise be bombarded by a manipulative musical accompaniment in the hands of a Spielberg, AMOUR really struck me as being a film made by a filmmaker who truly understands the power of a good story and how one’s confidence in one’s actors to tell that story are in the end all one really needs to make a powerful film.

While I already wrote an article about my “Top 10 Favorite Films of 2012,” I’d like to make an amendment. While I loved CLOUD ATLAS, I’m afraid I’m going to have to knock it down a peg and list Michael Haneke’s AMOUR as the best film of 2012.

WARM BODIES (2013) - directed by Jonathan Levine

Let me first begin by assuring doubters that Jonathan Levine’s WARM BODIES is not TWILIGHT with zombies. Though I have to admit that Teresa Palmer looks like a dead ringer for Kristen Stewart.

I love zombie movies as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, if there’s a sub-genre in horror that’s in dire need of an enema, it’s the zombie one. The undead mythos has been exhumed to death with no real sign of innovation in sight.

That is, unless you’re an avid reader of horror.

Those among us vociferous readers have known all along that there are many new directions to take the zombie genre in and chief among them is placing the audience in the head of one of these flesh-eaters. David Wellington’s MONSTER ISLAND trilogy is an excellent example of this going so far as having his main zombie pontificate in Dostoevsky-esque inner monologues, giving us, the reader, some real insight into his character and what it’s like to be on the other end of a zombie apocalypse.

As far as where Levine’s film stands in all of this, I was smiling the whole way through. The film plays very much like a David Wellington novel, albeit with a heavy emphasis on romantic comedy conventions.

The script is smart, the soundtrack is very eclectic and the production designer did a bang-up job turning my hometown of Montreal into a post-nuclear war zone.

There are some lapses in zombie logic, particularly if you’re a longtime fan of the genre. For instance, it’s long been established that zombies are brain-dead creatures who wander around without rhyme or reason. Now while I was able to swallow the fact that our hero, R, was able to utter some words, when his friend starting driving around in a car, and perfectly I might add, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at how silly that was.

But overall, the film is sweet and whimsical. And while it may not go down in history as being a horror masterpiece, it may be looked upon as the film that launched an “Undead New Wave” of films featuring angst-ridden zombies who will hopefully keep their shirts on and not glow in the daytime.

BULLET TO THE HEAD (2012) - directed by Walter Hill

When it comes to action icons of the ’80s, I was always more of a Schwarzenegger guy. So I have to admit that I’m not quite up to date on my Stallone filmography. So where BULLET TO THE HEAD ranks among his best work will have to be a debate held among Stallone historians. As far as this reviewer is concerned, it’s a fairly entertaining action flick with a cast that wouldn’t look out-of-place had Canon released this back in the ’80s.

One thing I found particularly intriguing was the casting of Sung Kang as Stallone’s sidekick. Typically Asian characters are reduced to racial stereotypes literally spouting intelligible dialogue along the lines of, “Ching, Chang, Chong.” But in BULLET TO THE HEAD, we’re given a fleshed out, three-dimensional Korean lead who goes toe to toe with Stallone both verbally and physically. Action films have sure come a long way and it’s refreshing to see America get with the times.

Stallone looks fantastic and unlike Schwarzenegger, can still play the “Ultra He-Man” character and get away with it. While Arnie sort of let himself go while playing politics, Stallone has kept himself in great shape and manages to be believable when kicking ass, despite being a stone throw’s away from 70.

But perhaps the biggest revelation of the picture is Jason Momoa and the fantastic performance he puts in here. He pulls off the swarmy ’80s-style villain, without going over-the-top with it and thus is all the more menacing for it. I think he may a great future here if he continues to go down this route.

My main critique with this film as it tends to be with all contemporary action films is the direction of Walter Hill. One of the main reasons why I went to see this was that it marked the big screen return of legendary action filmmaker Walter Hill. I thought if anyone would do the genre right and shoot action sequences the way they’re meant to be seen (wide and bright so we can see what’s going on), it would be one of its pioneers. Unfortunately, whether it was a conscious decision to fall in line with current trends or not, Hill resorts to the Parkinson’s approach to cinematography where we get shaky handheld camerawork and extreme close-ups galore.

On one hand, you can argue that this new technique employed by directors adds an extra “oomph” to the fight sequences and makes them seem even more intense and gritty. But as any longtime fans of these kinds of films will tell you, we need to actually SEE what is happening in these sequences. There’s a psychological fulfillment that comes with actually seeing Stallone in a wide shot actually going out there and doing his stunts. With this myopic approach to shooting, you can pretty much have anyone on-screen fighting as there’s no way to tell who’s who.

In the end, BULLET TO THE HEAD offers a few thrills and some interesting casting, but the direction and cinematography is beyond amateur and very disappointing considering who was sitting in the director’s chair.

 

DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) - directed by Billy Wilder

I recently had the opportunity to watch Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY on a brand spanking new 35mm print at the Cinematheque Quebecoise here in Montreal and what a treat it was!

Wilder’s film noir masterpiece was one of the earlier examples of this revolutionary film genre and as a result, the iconic cinematography that these films would later become renowned for is still very much a work in progress here, though the high contrast lighting and dark shadows are definitely present.

But I was struck by a couple of things while watching this film.

More than anything else, DOUBLE INDEMNITY’s major triumph is in its writing. Dear God, what an incredibly snappy screenplay. While some of the antiquated gender politics illicit a couple of cringe-worthy groans through certain bits of dialogue, the overall back-and-forth witty banter between the characters is truly a symphony of words that made me fall in love with the English language all over again.

However, what really drew my attention was the performance of Barbara Stanwyck. Not only was she able to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Fred MacMurray but she also exhibited a sexuality that puts all the so-called “sex symbols” of today to shame.

Watching her in this film, I was reminded of an episode of THE SIMPSONS where Mr. Burns is lamenting about the trollops who parade on-screen with all their clothes off and how back in his day, all the likes of Lauren Bacall had to do to get a sexual thrill out of him was to raise an eyebrow.

I couldn’t agree more.

Barbara Stanwyck crossing one magnificently sculpted leg over the other and giving Walter Neff (and the audience) a tantalizing glimpse of her exquisite anklet and equally enticing ankle was more than enough to inspire my “Maltese Falcon” to give a “military salute.”

COOL AS ICE (1991) - directed by David Kellogg

It almost feels pointless to review a film like COOL AS ICE. Films designed to be glossy promo videos for music stars are virtually critic-proof in that nothing a reviewer can say could possibly dissuade audiences from going out to see it. Especially since the audience is most likely going to be fans of said star. All I can really do is offer a few thoughts on the flash-in-the-pan, ’90s sensation that was Vanilla Ice.

Or is he a flash-in-the-pan sensation?

Bring up the name Vanilla Ice and even people who didn’t grow up in the ’90s will most likely have heard of him and not  necessarily because of his TO THE EXTREME album or his infamous cameo in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (1991). Believe it or not, he’s still going strong today and continues to release music be it NuMetal covers of old classics or his equally bizarre collaborations with the Insane Clown Posse.

I have to admit that I own a copy TO THE EXTREME and even have aspirations of adapting it into a musical play. I even went to see him in concert here in Montreal back in the day. He’s a really fascinating case study in that had he come into his own in today’s music scene, he probably wouldn’t have been the butt of the severe derision he received back in his time.

Nowadays, white rappers are a dime a dozen and depending on whom you ask, often considered to be some of the better, if not, best rappers going today. Say what you will about the Insane Clown Posse, but I’d soon as rather listen to an entire album of them rapping about “cutting my back off for a small fee” than anything the “Jigga Man” has to spout.

Hip-Hop, or rather, mainstream hip-hop is basically pop music now and the criticism Vanilla Ice received back in the day for “watering down” rap and making it accessible to audiences who would never dream of listening to the stuff, would be unfounded and downright hypocritical due to the fact that that’s what all rappers seem to be doing nowadays. I’m sorry, but Snoop Dogg lost all credibility as a “gangsta” the minute he appeared in a Katy Perry video.

An argument could certainly be made that Vanilla Ice may very well have been ahead of his time in ushering in a new era of rap/pop consolidation and laid the foundation for the ICPs, Kid Rocks and Eminems to break into the business and forge their own legacies.

As far as where COOL AS ICE fits into things, it’s an amusing time capsule showcasing the leader of the V.I.P. posse in his prime, playing the James Dean role in this rap remake of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.

It’s also an extremely surreal experience featuring a plethora of ridiculous montages, weird fast-forward and slow-motion sequences, scenes of white people attempting to dance (and failing) designed to make Vanilla Ice look cooler by comparison and cinematography by none other than Janusz Kaminski(!), the Director of Photography on SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

The film’s loud and obnoxious aesthetic can probably be attributed to the fact that its director, David Kellogg, is primarily known for shooting behind-the-scenes videos for Playboy photo shoots as well as his work in music videos (he directed the JAM video for Michael Jackson and the LOVE OH LOVE one for Lionel Richie). The only other film to his credit was the live-action adaptation of INSPECTOR GADGET (1999).

In addition to being cult movie material, COOL AS ICE also offers an interesting look at American pop culture in the midst of a radical transformation. Politically, the country was in that “no man’s land” between the Regan years of the ’80s and the Clinton era of the ’90s and throughout the film you see that conflict between holding on the egregious excesses of the former and the budding nihilistic teen angst of the latter very clearly.

It’s actually a very fascinating bit of subtext whose subtlety and nuances are unfortunately overshadowed by the loudness of Vanilla Ice’s orange tang leather jacket.

 

THE LAST STAND (2013) - directed by Kim Jee-Woon

It’s a common misconception that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bad actor. His charisma is unparalleled. His enthusiasm is contagious. And his screen presence is electrifying. He also has an uncanny ability to be perfectly cast in virtually every motion picture he’s ever starred in giving him one of the most consistent track records in Hollywood history. If there’s ever been a lull in his career, it’s certainly not for lack of gusto on his part but rather for the poor picture itself. 

Suffice it to say, I’m a big fan. And while I admit that my nostalgic fondness for the man may have influenced my reception to his return to the big screen in a leading role, I can guarantee you that even non-fans will have to concede that THE LAST STAND is one hell of a movie.

Once again, Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast as a sheriff who’s showing his age and has seen a lifetime of carnage and pain. It’s a very apropos role for him to embody given the parallels between Sheriff Owens and his own real life vis a vis his career in action films and Governor of California.

It’s also the perfect vehicle to promote his return to film in as it pays homage to his legendary status as an action icon while painting a picture of the likely future of Schwarzenegger’s career – the aging father figure superhero who can still kick some ass, albeit on a smaller and more realistic scale.

The motley crew of cops under his command are a fun bunch of characters that we get to know and care about. And contrary to his billing and presence on the movie poster, Johnny Knoxville is thankfully used very sparingly in the film and as a result, his appearances are not nearly as unbearable as I thought they’d be.

I suppose my main critique of the film is that it lacks a truly over-the-top, ’80s-style villain. Gabriel Cortez is a promising enough character but we never get to spend a lot of time with him and as a result we have to learn through quick conversation among the FBI chasing him that he’s the notorious leader of some drug cartel or other. We do get some hands running through greasy, slicked back hair action courtesy of Burrell, one of Cortez’s main henchmen, which was a nice touch.

One of the main reasons why we don’t get fully developed villains is that perhaps we spend a little too much time with Schwarzenegger and company, which leads to my next point.

With all this talk about Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen, there’s another, equally important story that’s being neglected by the coverage the film’s been receiving and that’s the U.S. English-language filmmaking debut of South Korean sensation, Kim Jee-Woon.

The director behind I SAW THE DEVIL (2010), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD (2008) and my own personal favorite, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003) does an absolutely phenomenal job here imbuing THE LAST STAND with his quirky, Coen Bros.-esque (complete with Harry Dean Stanton cameo) humor as well as showing his flare for staging several tense, edge-of-your-seat action set-pieces, namely the tremendous cornfield car chase scene as well as the climactic showdown on the bridge between Owens and Cortez.

With THE LAST STAND, Kim Jee-Woon proved he can still make the kind of film he’s known and loved for while working within the Hollywood system. And given the track record of foreign filmmakers making the leap from being a worshiped auteur in their homeland to being a nameless face with something to prove in America, that’s perhaps his biggest accomplishment of all.