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Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Aside:  WOOOO KATHRYN BIGELOW!

The Hurt Locker opens with Specialist Eldridge, Sergeant Sanborn and Staff Sergeant Thompson out on a daily task.  As members of an EOD unit, they are assigned to defuse bombs in Iraq.    Thompson is the guy who puts on the suit and defuses the bomb.  Sanborn and Eldredge hang back and provide cover against any threat.   The assignment goes tragically wrong.  Thompson dies and Bravo Company is assigned a new leader, Sergeant James.

Sanborn is appalled by James’ behavior.   James seems reckless, refusing to stay in communication with the two guys covering his back, going against standard operating policy and putting the unit in what Sanborn feels is unnecessary danger.   Eldridge worries obsessively over his own fate and safety.   The constant thought of death occupies Eldridge’s mind, leading an Army psychiatrist to set up regular sessions with him.

The only other person has any emotional connection with is a young Iraqi boy who calls himself Beckham.   As Bravo Company’s time in Iraq dwindles to a close, what the three men want out of life and how they intend to live it is thrown into sharper focus.

The Hurt Locker moves fast and goes long.   Most of the shots are close and tight; Bigelow directs with a sense of urgency and tension that grows as the film progresses.   There are a few beautiful moments in the film that are atypical, to be sure.  When Thompson is killed by an IED, Bigelow shoots in slow-motion the ground rumbling and the dust moving off a rusty, bombed out car.

The message of the film is right in the title cards:  war is a drug.  Some like it, some don’t.   Eldridge desperately wants to go home alive and nothing more.  Sanborn comes to realize no one would care much if he died.   It eats at him.  He professes a deep hatred of Iraq.

It is James, the “reckless”, “unstable” guy who can’t get enough of war.   He enjoys his job, taking souvenirs of bombs not only as tokens of times he nearly got killed but out of genuine interest in how bombs are assembled.   He struggles to do what he believes is the right thing even if he forgets to weigh the cost in human lives at times.

The Hurt Locker is well executed and smartly crafted, but it also examines the stress of this war in particular.   Disarming bombs is dangerous enough, but the EOD unit must contend with snipers, remote bombers, and realizes everyone on the street may be against them.   And how do people react to war?   Some think it’s hell, some hate it and some really and truly appreciate their jobs no matter how dangerous.   It’s a frightening thought, but Jeremy Renner does a masterful job of portraying Sergeant James as a guy initially perhaps unable to cope with his need to do the job he does who manages to reconcile it in the end.  The tension and differences between Sanborn and James against the war-torn city they work in is part of The Hurt Locker‘s strength.   Bigelow’s sensitivity toward James is compelling, given that it’s easy to take that character and simplify him in such a crude fashion, but James is given depth.   Jeremy Renner creates a guy who can be unsympathetic and at times obnoxious, but you understand why he does what he does.

A fantastic film.   It earned its Best Picture nom.   I can’t say the award, since I haven’t seen all of the ’09 nominees, but damn, it’s a great film.

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Uh, not the Sean Penn version.

Jack Burden is a young newspaper reporter sent out to the small town of Kenosha to cover a story that’s interesting to his editor because it’s about “an honest man”.   Willie Stark is a Kenosha man tired of the corrupt politicians, so he runs for county tax collector.   Burden is intrigued; Stark does seem honest and righteous, the kind of guy who doesn’t drink and refuses to bow to the local good old boys who terrorize his family, throw bricks in his windows and prevent him from passing out handbills and talking to the townsfolk.   Stark warns of corruption in the contracts issued for building the new school.  He loses the election, but a group of slick politicians show up and convince Stark to run for governor.   It is their hope that he’ll split the vote between the two major candidates, thereby allowing a specific candidate to win.

Burden goes back to his newspaper job, but quits after a while, disillusioned with the fact that the paper owners want him to write stories that support a candidate other than Stark.

After Burden and campaign worker Sadie Burke inadvertently reveal to Stark the brutal truth of why he’s in the governor’s race, all bets are off.

Stark unleashes rage and fury at the men who set him up and at the establishment in general, appealing to his fellow men, the poor and the downtrodden — the “hicks”, as Stark calls them.   He goes ballistic.    He does not, however, win the election.

He spends his time preparing for the next election while Burden watches from a distance, Stark striking shady deals with corporations and spending money like its going out of style on circuses and barbeques for voters.    Stark gets elected the next time, with Burke at his side and now, in his bed.   He gives up the teetotaling in favor of drink and leaves his wife at home to spend time with Sadie and later, another woman.   His zeal for the common man turns ruthless and brutal, self-serving and greedy.   Jack Burden is hired as his hatchet man, and after that, everyone Burden knows that comes in contact with Willie Stark is painfully destroyed in some fashion.

Ideas are often noble and carry with them some sense of purity.    The problem is that once human beings must act on ideas, such concepts are left to the fallibility of human nature.   Ideas might be noble, but there is no such thing as a perfect human being.

Willie Stark starts out with a very noble goal:  to take back the government from the corrupt politicians in power.   He appeals to the very best of human nature while unleashing the absolute worst in himself.   Stark justifies some very brutal actions – bribery, blackmail, even murder – by telling himself that it is for the good of the people.   When Stark’s son kills a girl in a drunk driving accident, Stark attempts to bribe the girl’s father with a lucrative contract for the truth to remain hidden, something Stark himself railed against.   The father turns him down, disgusted, and later, the man disappears.  It is only when the man’s badly beaten body is discovered that Stark’s staff realizes the man was murdered for standing up for the right thing.   All those in Stark’s path lose their innocence or possibly even more.

Stark promised the people of his state certain things, things that he did deliver – a new hospital, museums, universities – but at what cost?    He destroys lives for the right vote or for a pair of eyes set to look the other way.   Indeed, Stark’s own reliance on the justification that he is doing all this for the little guy is just a smooth veneer on Stark’s need to feed his own ego, line his own pockets and solidify his power base.

It’s a cautionary tale, one based on Huey Long’s life, which Robert Penn Warren (the writer of the book All the King’s Men) witnessed first-hand.    The axiom absolute power corrupts absolutely might be a bit tired to trot out, but it’s nonetheless true.   Stark starts out as perhaps the best of men and ends up the wretched worst.   Broderick Crawford is perfect as Stark, a mix of righteous indignation and self-serving interest.    It’s a movie that doesn’t leave you easily, since Stark is so eerie and creepy, his staff and hangers-on so readily compliant and the crowds cheering him on.    All The King’s Men is the telling of a story of the worst of human nature, a warning, a lesson on what we choices we make to when it comes to the terrible side of life.

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Nick Cannon, please don’t take yourself so seriously.

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Drumline isn’t actually half bad.   And speaking as a former band nerd, the marching bands are pretty spot on.

Nick Cannon plays Devon, a drummer who goes to an Atlanta college and joins the marching band.   He’s the worst kind of cocky as he’s so arrogant he can barely take criticism.   Devon chafes under the rules of a squad leader and the director of the band, Dr. Lee.    A moral crisis as well as a revelation regarding Devon’s musical knowledge (spoiler:  he can’t read music) lead Devon to grow up and become a better musician.

The thing about Drumline is that the marching bands are as much a character as Devon.   I grew up in football crazy Texas, where marching band is part and parcel of the Texan obsession with all things pigskin related.  (Halftime entertainment is taken very seriously.)   Drumline does convey a lot of the work and sheer grind of being in a marching band, as well as the strange customs and habits a lot of bands have.    Devon’s storyline can be downright exhausting, not to mention irritating.   His attitude problems wear thin after a while.

The bit players are often the most entertaining.    And Drumline features some interesting marching shows even if the plot, especially when it comes to the love story, is worn so thin holes are beginning to show.     It is still surprising that they made a successful movie out of marching band, given that I understand a lot of folks don’t really get the appeal of marching bands, but the director, writer and producers pulled it through.    The bands are fun and the band members aren’t geeks, something too often trotted through any movie since it’s such a simplistic, well-traveled joke.

That’s not to say Drumline doesn’t take itself too seriously at times, which makes it at points really laughable.  The story line between Nick Cannon’s character and his squad leader is alpha male macho bullshit in such a hilarious way, you have to wonder if they played it up for laughs.   It’s clear that Nick Cannon is ultra-serious about his role as Devon to the point of taking it too far at times, which makes his part feel less conflicted, overcompensating young man and more egotistical jerk, like that one person everyone knows who’s so into themselves everyone around them is aware of how silly they really are.

Overall, Drumline‘s not a bad movie but not a great one either; I would suspect it’s the kind of movie that’s fun to watch with friends and giggle at when you need something light-hearted and refreshing (after this spate of horror flicks, I certainly needed that).    Good, clean fun, as the grown-ups would say.

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#1555: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

If you’re expecting some sort of resolution or answers to the problems Woody Allen gives his characters, don’t hold your breath.

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Vicky and Cristina are two Americans headed to Barcelona for a two month vacation.   Impulsive, romantic Cristina and level-headed pragmatist Vicky are hosted by some distant family members cooped up in town.   Vicky has a nice if rote life in front of her:  she’s close to finishing a masters degree, engaged to be married to a boring yuppie and looking at that whole boring upper-middle class lifestyle.   Cristina is searching for something different and new but can’t articulate what she does want, only what she doesn’t.

The two run into Juan Antonio, a brooding yet charming local painter who offers to take them to a remote area.  After much resistance from Vicky and almost none from Cristina, the two head out with Juan Antonio, beginning a strange entanglements of romance and love.   Juan Antonio is saddled with a  volatile and slightly deranged ex-wife by the name of Maria Elena.   As both Vicky and Cristina sleep with Juan Antonio, they come to have very different experiences.

Spoiler:  Neither of them learns anything.   Both question the nature of their lives, their hopes, their ideas about love and life, but it winds up having no greater effect on their lives.   Cristina at one point even shacks up with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, searching for something different but finds nothing to satisfy her.  Vicky aggressively obsesses over the fact that her life with boring Doug may not be everything she ever hoped and dreamed of, only to face that she cannot stomach the rollercoaster life that Juan Antonio and Maria Elena lead.

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We end the movie as we began:  Juan Antonio has nearly been killed by Maria Elena, Vicky is on the same path she always has set herself on, and Cristina is still the carefree searcher.   In many ways, Allen’s movie seems to contemplate the idea that life is pointless; that we make the same mistakes over and over again, that we never find the answers that make sense (or maybe we don’t ask the right questions).  It’s beautiful and slightly sad, set to the sounds of Spanish guitars.   Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a wonderful film that gives you a lot of mental cud to chew.

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To celebrate the release of the long awaited Inglourious Basterds on Friday,  I had planned to do a whole week of Tarantino flicks (and still do), only to have some sort of nasty shoulder problem flare up Sunday and continue through Tuesday.   So we’re picking up today and I’ll be picking up the rest of the slack through the week, provided I can find all my copies of Tarantino flicks.

I’m starting out with Pulp Fiction, not Reservoir Dogs, which chronologically makes no sense.   Pulp Fiction, though, was the first Tarantino film I ever saw.   I was eight and my parents rented it.   We made it through about fifteen seconds of the Royale with Cheese scene before my parents shut it off.   They were horrified and returned it shortly thereafter, never to be brought up again.   (The subject of Quentin Tarantino to my parents is one massive eyeroll, I think).   Another eight years later or so, I would finally watch the whole thing.

To an eight year old, I think those first five or six minutes of Pulp Fiction were about the coolest thing you could see.

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Watching Pulp Fiction for me still brings back strange thrills of being young and feeling like maybe you were watching something you weren’t supposed to watch, even though I know better since I’m a grown woman now.   Instead of dissecting and analyzing Pulp Fiction since thousands of others have done so more thoroughly and better than I could ever do, I’m just going to reminisce a bit.

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It’s hard to believe that we are in the fifteenth anniversary of  Pulp Fiction’s release.  It can’t have been fifteen years, can it?   Nothing seems quite right about it.

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Then again, nothing about Tarantino’s second movie feels quite right.   It’s like the movie itself exists in a reality connected to ours with a few threads clipped away.   The choppy timeline only serves up more disorientation.   Traditional product placement is replaced with now easily recognizable Tarantino staples like Red Apple cigarettes and Jack Rabbit Slim’s (which is on its own like a retro diner ground through a bad acid trip, if you ask me).

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#1545: Darkman

Three words:  Disfigured Liam Neeson.

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Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, a scientist working on an artificial skin to help burn victims.   It’s got one problem:  it can’t survive more than 99 minutes in direct light, but functions perfectly in the dark.  Other than this stumbling block, his life is moving along well:  he’s got a great girlfriend, a sweet research gig and a swank laboratory.   Until he hits the worst day of his life.

Westlake’s girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand) is a lawyer working for the Strack company, headed up by the evil Louis Strack.   She discovers an internal memo by accident.   It’s too bad for her that the memo contains information about Strack’s shady business dealings with a mobster named Durant and Strack’s bribes to the zoning committee.   Westlake picked it up by mistake on his way to his lab, so off go Strack  & Durant’s minions to clean up the problem.

Poor Westlake got his marriage proposal to Julie laughed off that morning, then mobsters come in, beat him, drop him in a vat of acid, kill his assistant and explode his lab.

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Yeah, that day would go right in the “Shittiest Day Ever” category.

Westlake’s battered, burned body washes ashore and the local hospital mistakes him for a homeless person.   You know what this means!  Experimentation!   They snip some nerves so he can no longer feel pain, making him sorta superhuman, but with the major bummer side effect of increased emotional angst and some serious adrenaline rages.   Think half-Wolverine berserker kind of stuff.

Westlake escapes the hospital, rebuilds his lab and decides to take out the bad guys who basically fucked up his awesome life and win his girl back.   Said girl is operating under the assumption that he’s dead, actually, so Westlake has a ton of work ahead of him.

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Darkman is far from greatness but it is fun.   Made by Sam Raimi, it features a lot of Raimi hallmarks, but it feels more like a throwback to the old monster & sci fi flicks from the ’30’s – ’50’s than it does a modern flick.   (Raimi’s montages in particular are evocative of this.)

Neeson does about as good a job as one can expect.   He’s part Phantom of the Opera, part Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he spends most of his role (sadly for us shallow folks) in full burned up makeup.   He’s stronger in the first part of the film, where he really does tug your heartstrings after he’s escaped from the hospital and is gradually realizing what happened to him.

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What’s shocking is how much of a dullard Frances McDormand appears to be in this one.   She looks shell-shocked for most of the movie, even before Peyton catches the fireball express to the river.   Afterwards, she doesn’t get much better.   Sad, but true – and it makes you wonder what Westlake’s expending all this energy to recover.

The ending of the movie is great and solid, but probably not the one audiences wanted to see.  While the bad guys get their just rewards, the story line between McDormand and a progressively more and more unstable Neeson can only end in an unhappy way.

While it is entertaining, the effects can border on the bad and muffle the actors’ ability to do what they do best.    It’s fun, but not inventive; dated and not fresh.   This is something you’d pause to watch on cable on a Saturday afternoon and then move about your day, nothing from the movie sticking in your head.

However, since this is a Sam Raimi flick… obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo!

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I know it’s widely popular to love Bruce Campbell, but how can you not?  I adore the man, so this was the cherry on the top of a fun movie.

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Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a guy who is lacking in the social skills department.  He lives in a small town where his place of residence is the guesthouse of his family’s property.   His brother Gus and sister-in-law Karen live in the main house.   He works a boring job and goes to church, but his painful shyness problem and complete lack of socialization cause Karen to worry about him.

Gus and Karen are thrilled when one day Lars reports to the house, unbidden, to announce he has a new friend coming to stay.   Her name is Bianca and she’s a Brazilian/Dutch girl raised by nuns who Lars really likes.  He met her on the internet!

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Bianca is actually a Real Doll – one of those creepy, uber-realistic sex dolls you can buy on the internet – but Lars speaks to her as if she were a real person.   He insists on eating meals with her, taking her to church and generally treating her as if she’s a walking, talking human being.

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Gus and Karen are horrified and upset.  They take Lars to the local psychologist/doctor who advises them to keep the charade up with Lars.   From there, they have to convince the locals to treat Bianca as a real person to keep Lars happy.

Lars and the Real Girl is a sweet and charming film for ninety percent of the film’s run time.   There’s a cute scene with Ryan Gosling giving a stuffed bear CPR, even.   It’s a solid, well-made movie.   I only have one problem with the film:   it feels a little folksy-ethereal in a way.

As Bianca is accepted by the community at large, Lars comes out of his cocoon and the weird family unit that Lars has comes to terms with why he’s suffering the delusion that Bianca is real.   It feels very ungrounded, however, primarily because everyone in the town is willing to go along with the charade of Bianca-as-a-real-person.  While there’s some roadblocks to this at first, they’re easily surmounted.   It feels a little unreal in a way, because Bianca begins to “volunteer” within the community and is accepted as a real girl.   It begs the viewer to accept that these folks are that good-hearted, but it doesn’t feel realistic that someone might not stand up and say, “Lars, buddy, that’s um…that’s a doll you’re talking to, man.”

Overall, though, it’s a nice, very solid film that’s a good one-time watch.   It manages a cute and sweet feeling without overdoing it and has some moments of genuinely good humor.    The actors to watch in this are definitely Emily Mortimer and Ryan Gosling, who are the best of the bunch.   Worth a Netflix, for sure.

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