Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Smart People

A family has endured a tragedy. One family member in particular dealt poorly with said tragedy and is cantankerous. Another has glossed over their feelings and simply ignores the tragedy, while the family member that dealt with the tragedy comparatively well is misunderstood by the rest. Along comes out-of-town black sheep/wild card relative to reveal the error of their ways with his free spirit. This is the story of Smart People.

Familiar stories don't necessarily mean that a movie can't succeed, but when the outcome is predictable and the character development isn't satisfactory, then familiarity breeds contempt... or just plain mediocrity. Both the writer and director were having their first go round with SP, so I don't want to be too harsh here, but they didn't give us a reason to genuinely care for Dennis Quaid, the movie's main protagonist (I never felt connected to his [standoff-ish] character). Although Thomas Hayden Church, the family's proverbial black sheep, who's constantly referred to as Quaid's "adopted brother"--shades of Margot Tenenbaum here--was a good character, but wasn't exploited properly; the film relied on the repeated exposure of his bare bottom to garner laughs. Ellen Page, Quaid's daughter, did a fine job but I didn't feel like her character made much sense.

Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a bad movie... it just wasn't good either. This is where a Rotten Tomatoes review would be tricky because I wouldn't know whether to go fresh or rotten here (I guess if I'm tottering I should lean towards rotten since "fresh" is supposed to be an emblematic recommendation).

Final Grade: C/C-
Blurb: Smart People, Average Movie.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Band's Visit

Capturing a 36-hour period in Israel, this indie foreign film tells the story about an Egyptian military orchestra and the ordeal they encountered when they arrive at their venue--or, rather, what they thought was their venue. The band ends up in the wrong town, a rural town without much going on, and is unable to get another bus to the correct destination; Forced to stay in the town [for the night], what unfolds is the formation of relationships between the Egyptian visitors and the Israeli locals, as well as those among band members.

Thankfully this film is not based on the cultural gaffs between the ethnicities. Dave Chappelle is funny, but the whole racial humor thing is a bit worn out in my opinion (does anyone seriously think that Carlos Mencia is funny?). Instead of ethnic jokes (Arab vs. Jew) or religious jokes (Muslim vs. Judaism), the humor is subtle and well-placed and would work well in any language (sidenote: you might want to watch this film with the subtitles on as the Egyptian and Jewish characters converse to each other in English and it is hard to understand sometimes).

This isn't a film that's going to bowl you over or blow you away, but it's a solid piece of filmmaking and it's refreshing to see the Middle East through this lens (i.e. not blowing each other up). Both people groups are portrayed as people with problems--real problems that transcend ethnicity, religion, and nationality--and by the film's end you care about the characters more than you thought you might due to the movie's austere beginning.

Final Grade: B+
Blurb: A simple film that doesn't shoehorn the weighty emotion of outside forces into the storyline, but instead has vignette-like qualities which still adequately convey the characters' emotions. One of the better foreign films I've seen recently.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Paranoid Park

I'm sure that most of you haven't heard of this movie, but if you happen to come across it in Blockbuster, keep going.

Directed by Gus Van Sant (who also directed Good Will Hunting and Elephant), Paranoid Park is about a teenager who accidentally kills a security guard at a railway station and his attempt to deal with what he did. The premise is interesting; the movie is not, and the storytelling certainly doesn't help. The chronology of the narrative gets flipped around with no apparent reason at random times, and not in a cool Memento sort of way, or even a regular flashback sort of way, but in a haphazard and confusing way. Additionally, the story moves along very slowly. I'm not against slow movies, but this was stylisticly/cinematically slow as there were frequently 30-second shots of the main character walking in which nothing was said and nothing occurred. I'm not sure if GVS was trying to indicate the time the kid had to contemplate what he had done, but it got pretty old pretty quickly.

One of the few positives of the film is the narration. It's not brilliant, it's not witty, it's not profound. What it is, however, seems to be what a normal teenager would say. As much as I enjoyed Juno's wit and temperment, how many Juno's are there in high schools across the country? This kid was very normal which made the film feel more real, which is always a bonus. Other than that though, Paranoid Park was boring and in the end, there was no discernable moral or point to the story. I'm looking forward to a film I can recommend (since both this film and Revolver had "stay away" alterts).

Final Grade: D+
Blurb: Painfully slow and without much point or merit, this isn't a film you should pick up anytime soon. Gus Van Sant is going backwards.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I like Guy Ritchie. I think Snatch and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels are great action comedies, probably as great as that genre can get. But wow, does this movie suck. Ritchie abandons his trademark style for something much more boorish; he tries to make some sort of philosophical or psychological statement on the ego (not the I-think-highly-of-myself ego, but the id vs. ego vs. superego kind). I'm not against action movies with a philosophical bent--The Thin Red Line and To End All Wars both do a great job of combining philosophy and action--but you have to make sure to not confuse your audience along the way. I'm good at following plotlines and whatnot, but I was so confused in this movie that I almost turned it off a number of times. I think I understood what he was going for in the film's final five minutes, but the payoff was not nearly enough to override the previous 90 minutes.

Jason Statham--who emerged from Guy Ritchie's stable of actors--stars opposite Ray Liota. Statham is in a lot of terrible movies, but he's good in Ritchie's films. I love Ray Liota; Field of Dreams, Goodfellas, Narc ... all solid. But they weren't given much to work with here. Gone is the witty and biting dialogue of Snatch, only to be replaced by mediocre monologues and second-rate speech. Oddly, Big Boi (from Outkast) is also one of the stars of this movie, which makes me think Ritchie had trouble finding people who wanted to star in the film after they read the screenplay.

At the end of the film, Ritchie tries to implement an Ocean's 11 type of switcharoo, but I saw it coming from a mile away. And then he tries to pile on a statement about the ego--which he clearly thinks is going to blow your mind--on top of that. It's just sad. Guy, I understand that you want to step out of the comfortable mold you've created, but face it, you're good at what you do (Snatch/LockStock), so I won't think less of you if you continue to make great comedic-action films.

Final Grade: D-
Blurb: You'll be disappointed if you expect this to be Snatch; actually, you'll be disappointed if you expect this movie to do anything but suck. Memo to Guy Ritchie: kudos for trying, there's nothing wrong with sticking with what you know. A for effort, F for failure.

Monday, August 4, 2008

This Is England

And this is a difficult movie to watch. Set in a small English town in 1983, the film chronicles a 12-year-old boy's transition from a picked-on kid to a skinhead. The young lad is initially taken in by a nice group of skinheads (no, that's not a contradiction in terms) but eventually gets caught up with a rougher (read: racist) crowd that imbues him with their splenetic and irrational racial thinking. (Here's the trailer if you want).

What makes this movie tough to watch is how this kid--whose father died in the short-lived Falkland Wars--is manipulated by the skinhead leader (played devilishly well by Tommy from Snatch). Even more difficult to watch is the way said leader's hatred manifests itself (and you thought he hated pykies!). However, I feel like the pain the viewer endures is worth it by the time the film closes.

Historical aside: I disagree with the movie's portrayal of the Falkland Wars and Margaret Thatcher, but I agree with their portrayal of the two different kind of skinheads (of which I would have no idea if one of my colleagues wasn't seriously pursuing the history of the modern skinhead as a dissertation topic).

Final Grade: B+
This isn't Before the Devil Knows You're Dead--which is a good movie that you shouldn't watch; this is a good movie that is difficult to watch but provides an interesting look at a time that is often overlooked. Thankfully nobody yells "This is England!" like the guys from 300 yell "This is Sparta!" That alone should be enough to set aside any apprehensions you have about watching this film.