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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Top Ten Films of 2008

What a fascinating year in film. Although it is questionable whether or not this list will have any impact, here are my top ten movies of a very fruitful and rewarding year in film with a snippet or two about their greatness when necessary.

1. Synecdoche, New York – By far the most ambitious film of the year. Charlie Kaufman has come close to doing what Caden never managed to do. Most assuredly, it is not for everyone but delving into the despair at its heart yields immeasurable joy.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – The best mainstream film of the year, rife with deep sadness. Fincher and Pitt continue to put out excellent work. An instantly classic American epic.

3. Milk – This movie oozes style and talent. Gus Van Sant seared the feel of the 70s into every frame. His impressionistic, empathetic camera combined with Sean Penn’s tour de force were a spectacular combination.

4. Rachel Getting Married – Jonathon’s Demme’s seemingly simple hand held cinematography and unaffected performances all around yielded a near flawless, naturalistic masterpiece.

5. Waltz With Bashir – completely redefines the documentary format with visuals that are near revolutionary.

6. The Wrestler – Aronofsky is much more subtle but just as great. Mickey Rourke brings out his demons and hits exactly the right note of bittersweet.

7. The Dark Knight – Imbued with far more depth than it had any right to have. The Dark Knight was an example of the greatness that can result when artists are allowed to tackle a mainstream film. Heath Ledger is simply stunning.

8. WALL-E – Animation is no longer for the kids. Although wrapped in a layer of sweetness, it is deeply affecting satire that is near perfectly crafted.

9. The Wackness – A perfect portrait of 90s New York City. Levine takes stylistic risks and they all pay off, creating the overlooked gem of 2008.

10. Burn After Reading – The best comedy of the year. The Coen Brothers berate their audience with darkness and constantly push boundaries, making you laugh and cringe simultaneously.

Honorable Mention (in order of Honor attained): Frost/Nixon, In Bruges, Hancock, Funny Games, Mongol, Australia, Pineapple Express, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Iron Man, W., Tropic Thunder, Religulous,


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Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


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.


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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.


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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Review: ‘Liver! Lung! FR!’ by Frightened Rabbit

Live albums can be a tired product, devoid of any real valid excuse for existence. But when you get a hold of a good one, a really good one, you cannot help but to be excited.

That’s how you should feel listening to Frightened Rabbit’s first live disc, Liver! Lung! FR! Not only is it a wonderful collection of wonderful songs but the Scottish band’s live sound is worthy enough to capture and promote as a separate entity from their studio albums.

That last statement is especially notable when you register the fact that this live album is being released in the same year as Frightened Rabbit’s critically acclaimed second album, The Midnight Organ Fight (April), and the two releases share the exact same tracklist (save for two short songs ones from Organ Fight: “Bright Pink Bookmark” and “Extrasupervery”).

Recorded in July in a Glasgow (home to a great number of exciting acts) venue, Liver! Lung! FR! expands upon Organ Fights’ already adored songs by giving extra room to lead singer Scott

Hutchinson’s voice and the band’s concentrated playing. The tracks include heart-warming and swelling choruses followed by an innumerable number of “Cheers” said by the band, in addition to the applause from the enthusiastic crowd.

The songs, of course, are the greatest part of Liver! Lung! FR! (okay, maybe the album title is the greatest part). The album is filled with FR’s (as the band is affectionately known by fans and lazy music critics) earnest songs about relationships (love, sex, heartbreak, the whole shebang).

In Organ Fight single “Fast Blood,” Scott humbly sings, “And now I tremble/because this fumble/has become biblical.” Heavy stuff.

This live album is also justified by the fact that the record keeps intact some of the between song banter. Probably not all of the banter from the show is included (nor the songs, considering they probably played material from their first album, the also great Sing the Greys), but just enough is included to give us a taste of the band’s personality, in addition to a few laughs.

When frontman Scott invites fairly well-known (in those parts) Glasgow singer-songwriter Ross Clark onstage to help them perform “Old Old Fashioned,” it seems as though Clark stumbles in picking up his instrument. A verbal exchange results in the search’s conclusion: “A mandolin from Ross’ arse!”

The harmonies are more immediate and touching live, stripped of the studio’s hug (and this is not a claim against the record. The record is great and the harmonies on it are great, too.).

Songs like “Old Old Fashioned” take on an exciting and revitalized feeling when played live. The track goes from a “let-me-tell-you” type song to an anthem begging for the revival of the good things we seem to have left behind with our ever-consuming electronics biting at our feet: “I turn off the TV/It’s killing us/We never speak.”

And seeing them live is a whole other experience. Drummer Grant Hutchinson (brother of Scott) pounds on his kit with the intensity of a crazed industrial percussionist. You might even stop and wonder if that grimace on his face is healthy.

His drumming shines in the live sound too. Much like his performance and facial expressions in-person, his agile pounding propels the strong and, well, intense beats that come your way through the stereo.

Another valid excuse to have a live album: capturing something unique to the show. Along with the Ross Clark contribution, we’re treated to the beautiful voice of James Graham on the straightforward “Keep Yourself Warm” (sample lyric: “It takes more than f**king someone you don’t know to keep yourself warm”).

Graham is the lead singer of another Scottish band: the great Twilight Sad, who happen to be some FR’s best friends.

Graham’s emotive howl is a staple of the Twilight Sad’s songs, but taking on “Keep Yourself Warm,” he takes his voice to a falsetto fans have never heard before (perhaps we will hear more? The band goes into the studio to record their second album this January).

To repeat a common and well-informed sentiment: FR!

– R.H.

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Review: ‘Who Killed Harry Houdini?’ by I’m From Barcelona

Who Killed Harry Houdini? Mammoth-size rock band I’m From Barcelona try to answer that question on their second album (named after that particular question). Or, rather, they don’t. They just thought it would be a good title.

In any event, the question is irrelevant. I’m From Barcelona delivers another enjoyable record, even though it is considerably less happy and joy-filled than their first.

I’m From Barcelona broke out on the scene with its 2006 twee-pop debut, Let Me Introduce My Friends. And friends they have. Singer/songwriter Emanuel Lundgren leads the group, which had 29 members play on the band’s debut, a self-released EP made all in the name of fun. And none of the members of the Swedish group are from Barcelona (far as we know).

Let Me Introduce My Friends is a record that can simply and easily be described as a delight. After all, it is a (quality) twee record. Who Killed Harry Houdini? is also an enjoyable record but…the twee is gone.

Unlike its predecessor, Houdini has no songs about treehouses or chicken pox or oversleeping. Possibly, for just this reason (the lack of happy), Houdini is not as good a record as Friends. But to be fair, it is a good album that stands on its own.

Starting off a bit spookily, album opener “Andy” evokes Halloween imagery. These images are not a result of the lyrics but of the atmosphere of the song.

The song asks the Andy in question to join the already huge band: “Andy, you really want to go there?/They’re messing up your hair…/We could need someone like you in our band/Andy/No audition and you don’t have to pretend.” These lyrics display the classic silliness of I’m From Barcelona (so long as you translate “They’re messing up your hair” as a silly line in a serious-sounding song).

The happy that fans of I’m From Barcelona were so enamored with from the first album still exists in Houdini; it is just not as abundant.

“Paper Planes” sounds joyous with a cavalcade of voices singing (albeit about being surrounded by strangers). The song does not promise to take your money but rather dissects the art of “throwing paper planes to clear [one’s] head.” Sounds like therapy we could all use.

The somber side of the album shines on “Gunhild,” featuring vocals from French singer and actress Stéphanie Sokolinski, known in the music world as SoKo. A sweetly melancholy song, “Gunhild” is the first track in I’m From Barcelona’s catalog to really spotlight the sincerity in Lundgren’s kind voice. SoKo’s backing-into-lead vocals are a nice addition and play well alongside Lundgren’s vocals.

“Mingus” is an obvious album highlight with its bouncy use of the glockenspiel (a favorite instrument of the band).

On “Houdini,” there’s more darkness. Or at least, it sounds that way. To the undistinguishing ear, we hear “You’re like a demon!” when really, it is “You’re like Houdini!” Or maybe it is all a trick, and we cannot distinguish the truth any which way.

While the album is darker than I’m From Barcelona’s first, this does not detract from the record a great deal.

I’m From Barcelona is still sweet. But there is no need to brush your teeth.

– R.H.

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