Category Archives: Cinema

Review: Notorious

20th Century Fox

Courtesy: Fox Searchlight

The Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious is, predictably enough, a family affair in numerous ways. Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace was involved extensively, even anointing Jamal Woolard as her son in an open casting call. Furthermore, her grandson, CJ Wallace, plays the young incarnation of his father apparently blissfully ignorant of the implications his performance entailed. While it is perfectly acceptable that Mrs.Wallce, a woman who by all accounts was the most positive voice in Biggie’s tumultuous life, be involved in her son’s biopic, it places an artistic chokehold on the material. Watching the film, one is forced to look around in incredulity, wondering if anybody else in the theatre was buying the glossy depictions of Saint Smalls and his madonna of a mother. Aside from that of Mrs. Wallace, the other prominent meddling that can be detected in the film comes directly from the diamond studded hand of Sean ‘Puffy/P.Diddy/Diddy’ Combs. Derek Luke plays Combs as Biggie’s guardian angel, a helpful and selfless model of benevolence who was only too happy to turn Biggie’s life around and take him to the promise land while asking relatively little in return. Naturally, there is little hint of the shameless profiteering Combs clearly engaged in as he built his empire off of the life but mostly the death of Biggie. Lil Kim even gets recast as simply a wounded soul madly in love. One begins to wonder how the sweetheart on the screen ended up a convicted felon and noted crazy person.

In fact, Notorious bears little resemblance to Biggie’s masterpiece debut, Ready to Die or even to the lesser sequel, Life After Death. Rather it is kin to Born Again, the post humous collection of botched and brazenly cynical remixes and unreleased tracks created by Combs and Biggie’s estate to cash in one last time before Biggie lost his hold on the national consciousness. Granted, Notorious is not without its small successes. Woolard’s Biggie, if nothing else, is especially charming and winsome, qualities often overlooked when discussing the man. In addition, hee can certainly look like Biggie, an accomplishment not be dismissed. Angela Bassett brings appropriate gravitas and regal bearing as Voletta even if her theatrics square very rarely with the largely buoyant tone of the movie. There is even a modicum of style in director George Tillman’s camera work, even if the first act seemingly pilfered its visuals from Everybody Hates Chris.

As much as the talent involved tries, however, the calculated stench of the Hollywood biopic never quite washes off. Woolard is funny but he is severely lacking in gravitas. Although meant to be indelible, shots of Biggie on his throne,cane in hand and hat on head, end up almost comic as one sees not the king of the game but a chubby poseur out of his league. As much as Mrs. Wallace and everyone involved would like to ignore it, Biggie was, at times, a dark, dark motherfucker. Ready to Die is a nightmare of a record whose foreboding atmosphere of doom is only matched by its penchant for brilliant fatalist musings. If Notorious had followed the grand, tragic arc set forth in that classic then it might have achieved a Shakespearean heft equal to that of its protagonist. What should be transcendent tragedy is molded by Tillman Jr. into a pandering, inept and ultimately incomplete portrait. Shots of Biggie doing bad things like selling crack to a pregnant woman or exploding in anger seems requisite rather than revelatory. The crackhead even goes on to miraculously have a productive life and a fine son leaving one to wonder if Saint Smalls was kind and magnanimous enough to supply her with magical crack. When that final, fated bullet ends the life of Christopher Wallace one is left  happy and hopeful, confident that Biggie, joyous and well fed in heaven, is delivering the voiceover with a smile and a warm heart. Well, fuck that shit.

Allow me to quote a great poet who deserves better:

“When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell

Cause Im a piece of shit, it aint hard to fuckin tell
It dont make sense, goin to heaven wit the goodie-goodies
Dressed in white, I like black tims and black hoodies
God will probably have me on some real strict shit
No sleepin all day, no gettin my dick licked
Hangin with the goodie-goodies loungin in paradise
Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice

All my life I been considered as the worst”

-Vman

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Review: Synecdoche, New York

Sony Classics

Courtesy: Sony Classics


A review of this film would be more inconsequential than usual and mere folderol to the spectacle of it all. Therefore, it is much more prudent to jot down some thoughts had a fair bit ago upon experiencing the piece. After all, Charlie Kaufman himself said Synecdoche is constructed more like a dream than a rational, linear film. Caden Cotard(Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director heading headlong for death. This knowledge is conveyed to him through the various failures of his body. The blood in his stool, the pains in his body, the pus, the headaches, the insolvency are all harbingers, signaling that the road is ending and there is no detour. Yet, Caden still wants to find a way out the same as we all do, his conduit being theater. Having won a MacArthur genius grant for his interpretation of Death of a Salesman, he sets about creating meaning in the existential void by bringing all of life into the theater, a venue he can manage and mold to his liking. His wife having left him with his kid and quickly finding himself all alone in the world, Caden connects with the world by bringing it into his. Actors are cast, mammoth sets are built and much like the world itself, everything is begun with grand ambitions and hopes as larger than the titanic warehouse in which Caden creates his world. It is with this premise that the film leaves the pathetic trepidations of the masses behind and one begins to see Charlie Kaufman playing with the puzzle he has just created, attempting to solve it not for the audience but for his own pleasure. Eventually he puts the pieces together and finds that they form a picture of nothing. Caden sees his love rejected universally as his daughter and ex wife scorn him, his relationships end in chaos or awkward stalemates. While he was busy bringing his life onto the stage, he forgot to live it. No matter, life is theater isn’t it? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and no matter what Caden comes up with it is gone. The stage is ephemeral and as unforgiving as the world, the performances disappearing into vapor as quickly as they come. Still, Caden wants to learn a thing or two before his time runs out. The stage becomes a prism, refracting, reflecting and extracting his life mercilessly. It is all there, the bleak sadness of his rituals: cleaning up his ex wife’s apartment while she is away, falling in and out of love with the same woman, smart enough to see it yet too stupid to do anything about it. It all comes out but Caden needs much more. Every extra is a lead, it’s real life man. Like life, the experiment ages. Actors become weary, sets begin to decay and Kaufman creates it all with exactitude. Reappearing for brief instants almost subliminally, certain images and motifs began to seep into the film. There is a pattern to it all, sad as one finds to be once discovered. Caden does not know that he’s just a little person, however, and he begins to get stage directions seemingly from on high. Wandering through his shattered reality and the one he did not create Caden has no refuge but in melancholy and the slight comfort of another. That’s it isn’t it? The song goes “I’ll find a second little person who will look at me and say… I know you, you’re the one I’ve waited for. Let’s have some fun.” A cautionary odyssey after it all happens, Caden cannot win and neither can we. Therefore, the least we can do is get the little moments that Caden sacrifices right. Regrets, however, cannot be fixed. The full weight of this bears on Caden but before he can do much more about it or nothing at all, there is a final stage command, die. I’m just a little person and so are you. This film might seem big but it isn’t. In actuality, it’s made for the little people like you and me by a little person. Kaufman knew he could not succeed where Caden had failed yet he got on with it, as we all must. See it and weep if you can, then forget about it forever, no good in fighting time.

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
– Vman

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Review: Milk

Focus Features

Courtesy: Focus Features


Perhaps the unsung hero in the praised to the heavens Gus Van Sant helmed Harvey Milk biopic Milk is director of cinematography Harris Savides. Bringing the same visual acumen he did to Zodiac, Savides seems to have undeniably mastered the palette of the 1970s. The images he and Gus Van Sant put on the screen are as, if not more stunning than the bravura performance by Sean Penn and co.

Case in point is the first sexual encounter between Harvey Milk and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco). Naturally, the performances are perfectly tuned and calibrated. Franco calls upon a hitherto largely suppressed charm (think of the dour Harry Osborn in Spiderman 3) and glances knowingly at the considerably less attractive Penn, easily conveying that he just cannot help but be captivated by this funny looking Jew from long island. Meanwhile, Penn’s halting downward glances reveal that though Harvey was brazen enough to proposition Scott in the subway, he still retains a sweet, easily wounded core underneath that freedom fighter exterior. These performances, however, are stunning precisely because of the visual mastery of Savides and Van Sant. A handheld camera is placed within inches of the performers, providing startlingly intimate close ups as it lapses in and out of focus. The larger image appears beautifully worn with lighting dim and hazy enough to hint at the illicit nature of the activity.

Of course,  Milk does not just contain a flawless opening scene. Rather, the film picks up righteous steam as Harvey moves from Long Island to San Francisco to find a purpose. Eventually he discovers this to be politically crusading for gay rights and more specifically, representing Castro street, the center of the burgeoning homosexual scene. Harvey starts riots, boycotts anti gay businesses and generally causes hell. He runs repeatedly and loses just as often but refuses to stop being a nuisance to the man. His hard nosed head on charge into the establishment — gay and straight — forces homosexuals to demand more than just gay friendly leaders and challenges those leaders to deliver the rights they promised in exchange for gay votes. Eventually, Harvey becomes the first openly gay public official and begins fighting the good fight, mainly against Orange juice spokesman Anita Bryant and her campaign to ban gay teachers in California schools.

Although by now Harvey has most assuredly been canonized as a gay saint, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black approach his story with a determined realism, balancing scenes of Harvey loudly pumping his fist and infecting a generation with his fervor with his domestic failures and rocky personal life. Above all though, credit is due to the supporting players in the film for grounding the story. Emile Hirsch plays Harveyrecruited gay activist Cleve Jones with both humor and a subterranean anger. When he tells Harvey he doesn’t do losing, the apathy of disaffected youth fully gives way to the fire started by Harvey.

Likewise, Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Harvey’s assassin, Dan White lends another, even more vital dimension to the film. Refusing to sentimentalize a universally reviled man, Brolin nevertheless explores the reasons for White’s egregious murders aside from the now infamous “twinkie defense” — arguing that an excess of fast food consumption caused the act — employed during his subsequent trial. An oft -stated armchair phycologist diagnosis would be that White was simply an extremely repressed homosexual, whose internalized homophobia caused him to lash out. Fortunately, Brolin does not settle with such an easy, convenient conclusion instead portraying White as the ultimate misfit, a lone working class conservative in gay, liberal San Francisco whose lack of political strength leaves him at the mercy of the world around him, a man who just wished to seize control for once in his life even if it was with a revolver.

Gus Van Sant is an oddity in American cinema,  a director who can delve as deftly deeply into the calculatedly mainstream (Good Will Hunting) as he can into the aesthetically experimental (Paranoid Park ). His presence and more importantly the mise en scene he perfects in the film are what elevate Milk above the innumerable perfectly acceptable biopics into the realm of American classics.

– Vman

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Review: Valkyrie

United Artists

Courtesy: United Artists

Bryan Singer had  a lot of potential.

Pretty much everybody who cared enjoyed The Usual Suspects. Everybody praised his take on Marvel’s beloved gang of organized misfits in X-Men. And X2 was well-received, as well.

But he has squandered his talents on his last two films. Superman Returns? No thank you, sir. He can go back to where he came from. Spider-Man is helping us out just fine.

(Below is a tangent about Superman Returns. Feel free to skip this.)

One of the problems with Singer’s first entry in the Superman film franchise (Superman: Man of Steel has been announced for 2011) is that he made it more of an iffy love story than an action film. The movie was fine. But people do not go to see Superman get all mushy.

But let’s make this clear: It’s not really much of a love story. And let’s make this clear: The movie is a stinker. Kevin Spacey is horrifically campy, and that’s not always a good thing. Writers Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris need to quit the blockbuster film industry if this is the kind of drivel they are coming up with. A pathetic attempt at resurrecting a hero.

Spider-Man, Batman: they are real humans (at least as we know them). Superman is an alien. With a heck of a lot of superpowers (too many, if you ask me. Where’s the fun in being basically invincible?). What the kids want to see at a Superman show is bang! bang! wham! ka-pow! Not a whimper of a bang, some sentimental 1950s imagery and a bald Kevin Spacey. No. Superman was made a monster of unstoppable force so we could see him beat the bad guys up. Not worry about marriage.

In any event… (tangent over)

Valkyrie is another stinker. But disturbingly, it might be on par with Superman Returns in quality. But who knows any more. Both films are forces meant to depress; not worth anyone’s time.

As you might know, Valkyrie is about the successful assassination of one of the world’s greatest evils, Adolf Hitler. Or rather, that’s what it should have been about.

Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is the German officer leading one assassination plot against Hitler’s life. You can probably imagine the end result of their mission.

Unfortunately for Singer and company (Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander write the screenplay (and yes, this is “based on true events”)), the best portion of the film is when it seems like Hitler really is dead. Valkyrie could have been an infinitely better film if it became an alternative universe fantasy and killed Hitler off. And then the allies ride off on unicorns, etcetera, etcetera.

Cruise’s American accent is no fun when some of the Nazis have British accents, some have German accents I wouldn’t be too surprised if I went back and found a Russian accent.

Valkyrie manages to be captivating for about ten minutes. (and those ten minutes are fifteen minutes after you awake from slumber) The narrative might be more interesting if we felt some kind of compassion for the characters. But most of the audience seemed to be rooting for their deaths just as much as the head honcho Nazis.

Valkyrie will succeed in the mainstream, though. It’s all ready a mild “hit.” But don’t you worry. It won’t be invading art house cinema complexes any time soon.

This film deserves the assassination Hitler never got.

– – – – – – –

Let it be known, the below trailer is an early one. (Note the end: “Summer 2008.”)

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Review: Gran Torino

Courtesy Warner Brothers

Courtesy Warner Brothers


It is remarkable to consider the gifts of Clint Eastwood, a man with a near miraculous ability to tap into the ideological mainstream of American life while offering enough of a critique to justify it as art. Gran Torino is focused on the final days of a typical Eastwood character, Walt Kowalski. A veteran of the Korean war, Kowalski delivers profanity monologues on respectively the “gooks”, “zipper-heads” and “chinks” rife with squints, scowls and even growls in the iconic manner of Dirty Harry. One is left with the impression that all he wants out of life is for people to stay off his lawn, leaving him alone with his demons from the war and the grief resulting from his wife Dorothy’s death.

Nevertheless, the world refuses to leave him with his misery when a neighboring Hmong boy, Thao, attempts to steal his beloved Ford Gran Torino, a vintage muscle car Kowalski himself helped assemble during his time at Ford. Kowalski then deals with Thao’s family with a mix of paternal care and knee jerk racism. Noble acts such as saving Thao’s sister Sue from thugs harassing her on the street and providing Thao with a guiding male presence he never had are offset by crude evocations of stereotypes such as instructing the hmongs to stay away from his dog when he learns of an ongoing barbeque. Eventually, Walt cannot help but be thrust into the middle of the conflict involving a local Hmong gang and Thao that brings out the heart of his character.

It is all too easy and painfully reductionist to dismiss Walt as the archetypical American stoic Eastwood has made a career out of perfectly capturing on celluloid. In fact, it is precisely the well worn familiarity of the narrative that lends the film potency. Gran Torino is one of the few films to zestfully tap into the vein of the American soul in a time when citizens are increasingly devoid of national spirit.  Everything about the film is an espousal of every classical value. When Thao asks Walt what about the type of work he should do. Walt vouches for Thao and gets him a job in construction, deriding how his son works in sales. It is a casual remark but it appeals to the American ethos of a generation past, valuing the creation of something material (construction, building cars) rather than the shuffling of immaterial goods such as credit default swaps.

Furthermore, Walt fights not out of anger but a sense of steadfast moral determination for Thao to live in peace. A sentiment that harkens back to a time when America did not rush headlong into wars full of misplaced Jingoism. In the same way that Walt attempts to teach his spoiled grandchildren about modesty and manners, Eastwood seems to be firing a blast square into the heart of the current culture. Gran Torino demands much of the viewer. It requires one to not only begrudgingly accept racism and proud political incorrectness  but laugh at and even celebrate it. Yet, the film’s pleasures extend far beyond that. It captures one’s emotions and attention almost subliminally, through a series of exceedingly creative racial epithets and quick shots of Walt’s blood on his napkin only to deliver a searing indelible gut punch of an ending. Gran Torino ends as an ideal symbiosis of character, film and director.

– Vman

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Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Paramount

Courtesy: Paramount

And what a curious case it is. Very loosely based on an F.Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, the film follows the titular protagonist Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) as he lives his life. Button journeys, loves and ultimately mourns just like any other man. The reason why his story is remarkable is that he was born with the body of an 80 year old man after the end of WWI and continued to grow ever younger while the world and most importantly the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) slowly eroded and decayed in typical fashion.

Admittedly off putting, Button’s central concept is difficult to accept and easy to deride as mere fantasy.  That, however, would be missing the point since it is far more accurate to regard Button as more of a thought experiment than an actual chronicle. It is a theoretical construct whose main purpose is to prod the viewer into examining his or her own beliefs and fears about mortality. When asked by Daisy if he notices the process and effects of becoming a younger man, Benjamin replies that all he sees when he looks in the mirror are his own eyes. This casually tossed off line is symbolic in more ways than one. Button just has a transcendental quality about it lacking from screenwriter Eric Roth’s perfectly fine previous work, Forrest Gump, because it goes through the greatest generations greatest hits( WW2 and the Beatles make predictable cameos) yet refuses to be defined by them. In fact, what one notices most about Button’s life is not that he had an affair with a woman who would go on to swim the English channel but that he adored Daisy and longed for a simple life together being a good father to their child. He just wanted to keep living, not setting records, changing the world or advancing humanity, but rather to just enjoy a quiet motorcycle ride or a furlough on his boat.

Not only philosophically sound, Button is also testament to the  artistic mastery of the people involved in its creation. After a haunting performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Pitt continues to deliver exponential returns. His performance is restrained but perfectly so. His Button comes across successfully as both a thoughtful wanderer and a regular man with sound values and decency. Although he wrestles with his celebrity, no actor working today, George Clooney excluded, has managed to carry on the tradition of the grand American leading man and create such meaningful work. He has a remarkable charisma that makes a simple shot of him riding a classic motorcycle adorned in a leather jacket and aviators instantly iconic.

Furthermore, it is a bit odd that the man carrying on the tradition of the American epic is none other than Seven and Fight Club director David Fincher. Always prodigiously gifted, Fincher has thus far preferred to toil on the edges of mainstream American cinema, making movies about sociopathic pugilists and sadistic serial killers. Now, he’s making a downright Speilbergian story. Luckily, Fincher’s dark sensibility and visual mastery matches perfectly with the material even as the script seems to have inspired a blossoming romanticism in the director. Though he would never admit it, his swooning visuals of Daisy dancing in the mist and Benjamin pondering death against an elegiac sunrise speak to this newly softened edges while the dark undercurrents — ironic hurricane Katrina references, the unflinchingly grotesque appearance of young Benjamin — harken back to his earlier days of shock and awe.

Button asks many questions of the audience and even inspires a few fits of existential despair. While the year’s other premier film, Synecdoche, New York left viewers in this emotional maw, Button offers viewers an answer of sorts with a simple montage of its characters. They are all dead and long gone as they knew they would be. Yet, they are still shown as they would want to be remembered: laughing, crying and living.

-Vman

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Review: The Wrestler

Film fans seeking to appreciate the remarkable range of Mickey Rourke, who plays aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Ramsinski in Darren Arnofsky’s The Wrestler, should view Barry Levinson’s classic debut Diner and note Rourke’s charming performance as Boogie, the charismatic sweet talker always prepared with an anecdote and a wry, knowing smile. Now, Rourke’s face has traded its fresh, handsome luster for lines, scars and wrinkles galore. In fact, Rourke looks like he can now almost play his character in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Marv without make up. Of course a weathered countenance does not a great performance make. Rather it is Rourke’s protean talents and his aforementioned incredible range. Rourke can effortlessly createpathos for Randy, by suggesting the simplicity and purity at the heart of the character yet still hint at a lost intelligence. His Randy is a man seeking lost glory who is willing to man the deli counter at ACME  and endure all the indignities that entails for his rapidly fading dream. He is an oddly gentle character, preferring to inflict pain upon himself rather than others. He tells people he’s alone and washed up but does not beg for their pity. Rourke imbues Randy with far too much grace for that.

The film, though centered on Randy’s turbulent personal and professional lives, is driven by the juxtaposition between Randy and an aging stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). The implication being that they play similar roles in show business, displaying their bodies and  their souls in return for meager compensation and adoration. Unfortunately for them, they are largely becoming obsolete and unnecessary. While her colleagues are gyrating to hip hop, Cassidy is stripping to classic metal. Randy enters to the ring greeted by Guns N Roses. The comedic highlight of the film is a joint rant on how much the 90s sucked. Their stumbling relationship is simultaneously beautiful and painful to watch. Rourke’s easy charm, most evident in his terrible dancing to his adored hair metal, combined with the wounded humanity he exudes with every teary glance, bring unexpected resonance to an otherwise cliched courtship. Likewise, Randy’s reconciliation with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) works in the larger context of the film, simply because it refuses to take the easy way out, unflinching in its simple, messy honesty.

That last phrase could apply to Arnofsky’s work in the film as well. Abandoning the expressive, technically masterful style of previous films such as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain,  Arnofsky shoots for subtly drawn realism and succeeds. Eschewing metaphorical visual odysseys rife with a variety of lenses and surrealist effects, Arnofsky empathetically frames Rourke from behind with a shaky, imperfect handheld camera. Using largely close ups, the camera generally remains trained on Rourke, refusing to miss a second of his tour de force as it brings the viewer directly into contact with every cut, crushing blow and searing staple. Essentially, Arnofsky filmed the movie the way Randy talks, starkly, sweetly and bluntly. The Wrestler finds poetry in its titular subject’s life without artifice or cynical calculation, a fact that makes it a rarity among Hollywood biopics and easily of the finest films of the year.

-Vman

Do not doubt The Wrestler‘s ambitions. A fine film, steeped in the depression of life we all know.

– R.H.

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