Thursday, July 21, 2011

9 (2009)

Imagination On Celluloid

- Hollywood heavyweight producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov back the sci-fi/fantasy fairytale vision from newcomer Shane Acker seen in the incredibly underrated 2009 animated film 9. The animation genre has become known to the average American moviegoer as a children's genre; a type of film that should be bright, fun, maybe watched in 3-D, and one that can be enjoyed all-around by the entire family. Rarely does a dark and thrilling animated film hit US screens but 9 hit them with a vengeance.

The world that is seen in 9 is unlike anything previously seen before: a dangerous machine-run world void of humans but with humanity living on in nine unique stitchpunks. Now 9 is not the first film - or even the first animated film - to feature a post-apocalyptic world but 9 does post-apocalyptic a bit differently than anything else has in the past. Director, writer, and animator of 9, Shane Acker, succeeds with his first feature film in the same way that he succeeded with his 2005 Oscar-nominated short film of the same name: by creating a visually brilliant world filled with charming characters and a mystery that can only be answered in the mind of each individual viewer.

The film begins with the ragdoll "stitchpunk" 9 waking up in a dark, dusty room. He does not know where he is nor does he know much of anything - he is alive for the first time. 9 has to learn as he goes along, and he quickly learns that he is living in a dangerous world after he meets another stitchpunk ragdoll, 2, and a vicious cat-looking machine who attacks and kidnaps 2. The learning experience continues as 9 meets up with the other stitchpunks (#s 1-8) and butts heads with the leader, 1, who wants to run and hide from the terrors of the world rather than stand up, fight, and rescue their missing comrades. 9's learning experience is broadened after a fateful experiment with trial and error as 9, along with 5, goes to rescue 2 but unlocks a terrible evil in the process. Now all of the stitchpunks must work together to survive in and unravel the mystery of this world, as hiding is no longer an option.

The runtime might be short (clocking in around 1 hour and 20 minutes) and the plot might be on a small scale but the style, characters, atmosphere, emotion, excitement, and imagination of Shane Acker's 9 are big and bold. Acker chose to put other things as his priority over telling a specifically "epic" or "intricate" story, 9 is a film that has a small story but big visuals and feeling with characters as the center of everything.

A case of style being a great part of the substance, the animation seen in the film is unprecedented and is clearly some of the finest ever seen in film. But Acker also packs the film with action and wields suspense like a sword, adding a pulse to the interesting broken film world he has created. Like 9, we the viewer are thrown into the world that Shane Acker paints for us, a world that is visually brilliant and fascinating; dense with an unspoiled combination of darkness, beauty, and detail. Much of what can be seen is reminiscent of World War I era Europe but much is also ripped from steampunk lore (think Jules Verne), creating a futuristic looking past. The world that is seen in the film is recognizable to us and yet is also foreign; a mesmerizing world that is wounded, its life taken and its history snuffed out by pain and mystery.

A similar ambiguous style of storytelling used in Shane Acker's 2005 short film is what makes the story, setting, and atmosphere so effective in Acker's 2009 feature film. 9 allows the viewer to make his or her own mind up about the world in which the story is set as well as the characters themselves - the film is not up in one's face with a blatant message or theme like so many other modern films these days.

9's learning experience throughout the film drives the story, becomes a catalyst for the interactions between the characters, and is the lens in which the audience watches the film. 9 is an imperfect hero and his charm and journey are endearing, however each character in the film is likable in different ways and represents a facet of humanity. A big line up of very prestigious actors populate 9 (Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau), giving voice and life to the characters. Sometimes voice actors, while not fully ruining their characters, overshadow their characters (like Eddie Murphy in Shrek (2001) or Tom Hanks in Toy Story (1995)). This never happens in 9, however; one completely forgets that stars are behind the voices while watching the film, the voices are simply the voices of the characters and that is nothing but a good thing for the film.

9 is, in my mind, an unquestionable animated masterpiece but taking into consideration the mixed reviews from fans and film critics, 9 will probably have to settle for a cult classic status. It does not matter much, however; 9 took me away into an amazing world with the magic of movies like no other film from 2009 and beyond - it is pure imagination on celluloid.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Avatar (2009)

Visual Splendor.... Emotional Bore

- James Cameron is back directing a major motion picture for the first time since 1997's Titanic with 2009's sci-fi epic Avatar. Well, I did not miss him. I cannot (and, at this point in time, would not want to) bring myself to say that Cameron has ever directed a bad film - but outside of The Abyss (1989 - excluding the last 5 or 10 minutes of the film) and Terminator 2:Judgment Day (1991 - when able to ignore Edward Furlong's squealing), I cannot say that I have ever been gung-ho for a James Cameron film. Avatar continues this trend for me.

The word "groundbreaking" seems to follow Avatar wherever it goes and, in the realm of visuals, there is no question why. There has been some great CGI in film history but nothing comes quite close to the visual effects seen in Avatar - almost making The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy look like Tron (1982). The world that James Cameron introduces is absolutely beautiful, with nothing short of vibrant coloring and exquisite detail in every shot. Cameron's inventive style of film-making - using two cameras to film each shot, basically mimicking the way human eyes work - services the film greatly, as the film looks about as 3-D as a film can get without being fitted for an actual 3-D experience. The use of the motion capture technique is also utilized to perfection to the point where it looks more like the actors are in makeup rather than having CGI help. The visuals in Avatar are stunning and I must say that I really liked the film when nobody was talking on screen - however, there is much talking in Avatar and nothing of any real substance.

Cameron outdid himself with the visuals but he decided to not make a groundbreaking story with groundbreaking characters and groundbreaking acting. This is really too bad, because anything that is not related to the film's visuals is a huge snooze.

The story is certainly not the groundbreaking aspect of the film, the film's chain of events are incredibly predictable and you cannot find more sap in a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth. Also, if one is to strip down the plot to its essentials, Avatar is nothing new: not only have we seen films that depict humans as the sci-fi invader or aggressor before (E.T. (1982) for one and even District 9 & Planet 51 released during the same 2009 film year as Avatar!) but the basic story was done in Star Trek: Insurrection (1999 - with Earth people trying to relocate an alien race to harvest a planet's prime resource). While there is enough of a difference in the stories of Avatar & Insurrection to make them completely different films, I could not help but think of Insurrection during the entire runtime.

The film eventually expands upon the entire forest moon of Pandora (which sounds a lot like the forest moon of Endor from Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (1983)) and specifically the humanoid alien race of the Na'vi, both of which are explored in an almost National Geographic way. The Na'vi are suspiciously Native American-like, which not only makes Sully's embracing of Na'vi life look a lot like Kevin Coaster's role in Dances With Wolves (1990) but it also really just hammers home the fact that Hollywood carries around nothing but complete romanticism (and maybe some white guilt too) for Native Americans.

Hollywood's romanticism for Native Americans is translated into the film through the Na'vi who are beyond in touch with nature, they are literally integrated into it - they can biologically plug into an animal and become one with it. The film also waxes spiritual about the Na'vi's wonderful religion - which is basically just worshiping the planet's biology (Hollywood would just love a religion they can scientifically prove) - but interesting or emotional it is not. All of this I found to just be very weird on top of lame. Moreover, Cameron force-feeds us his very heavy-handed, sophomoric, not-so-subtly environmentalist, and manipulative story. No other sappy environmentalist film posing as an adventure flick at the same time exists this side of Ferngully (1992)! The big bad cardboard cutout of a caricatures of the mean militaristic corporations vs. the spiritually and environmentally in-tune group of natives - who are you honestly going to choose to root for?

I have never considered James Cameron to be much of a director. He reliably delivers entertaining movies but, outside of The Abyss, I have never been impressed with his character building or stylistic approach to film-making and, outside of the technological feats of the film, I cannot say that Cameron did much of an interesting or stylish job with Avatar. Scene framing is very straight-forward here in Avatar and Cameron, quite frankly, just did not take any risks with the film's general presentation - taking into account the groundbreaking visual effects, the direction was very disappointing. Cameron did not do his actors any service either, Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi being the only actors who give a performance worth anything. Sam Worthington's rising fame is something I cannot understand - he has the same blank stare on his face in every scene. Joel Moore pops up and plays the stereotypical science nerd with particular banality, Michelle Rodriguez is as bland as she ever is, and Stephen Lang has the great misfortune of portraying the film's most 2-D character.

It is easy to see the great time, care, and money that was obviously fully invested into Avatar but when it comes to characters, story, themes, and emotion, Avatar failed to strike a chord with yours truly. Avatar, for me, really just ended up to be a visually splendid National Geographic/Star Wars/Dances With Wolves/Ferngully hybrid that is predictable, sappy, and blandly acted. The film looks great - but you are not missing out by missing Avatar.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Watchmen (2009)

I Definitely Won't Be Re-watching The Watchmen
....That's For Sure

- I had very interest in seeing Watchmen (2009) upon viewing its first trailer. Whether it was taking in the slow-motion lameness or noticing the cheesiness of the heroes' costumes, I was dreading the inevitable viewing I would need to put myself through to find out what all the hub-ub over the film is about.

Of course, the trailer's phrase "From the visionary director of 300 (2007) did not help rake in any extra interest for me. Zack Snyder is proving to be one of the worst directors working in Hollywood today. Although starting his filmography out well with his 2006 Dawn Of The Dead remake, 300 is just an awful film: the acting was horrendous and the film's style is ugly and very un-visionary like. Watchmen here I come!

Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe where a group of superheroes called The Watchmen have had a great impact on history - even helping the United States win the Vietnam War. By the 1980s however, The Watchmen have been outlawed and, because relations between the US and USSR are so bad, the world is terrified of the possibility of nuclear war. While The Watchmen were banned as an organization, one member of Watchmen remains active with blessing from the US government: the god-like Dr. Manhattan - who goes CGI full-frontal about 90% of the time (seriously, Manhattan cannot at least squeeze himself into an extra-large Speedo?), giving each audience member an up-close and personal new definition to the phrase "blue man group." Together with US President Nixon (who, after abolishing term limits, is in his fourth term; as if there is a real difference between political parties in the first place) they try to avoid a nuclear attack on the US.

Anyway, so everything is not so well in The Watchmen alternate universe - but things get worse when former Watchmen member The Comedian is murdered. Former Watchmen vigilante Rorschach seems to be the only one who cares that his former colleague is dead and begins to not only warn other former members of The Watchmen but to also get to the bottom of the murder. Other former Watchmen members become attacked and framed, all the while relations between the US and USSR continues to deteriorate and the doomsday clock continues to tick, bringing the world closer to nuclear war. Will The Watchmen be able to save themselves while saving the world from nuclear annihilation? Who cares?

Imagine my surprise that Snyder destroys another film. Watchmen is certainly better than 300 but is also certainly a lame mess. Packed with what is becoming Snyder's cinematic signature, Watchmen is overdone to death with slow motion and the clichéd scene set ups. Most notable of this is the bizarre Skin-a-Max sex scene towards the middle of the film - words cannot describe how pathetic the scene is.
Also, neither the action nor the drama is well staged. As was the case with 300, we have seen those action scenes one hundred million times before and the drama fails due to Snyder's inability to create tension or curb his actors well. Perhaps worst of all, the film's story is not told well in the least. The plot is stuffed to a breaking point but, to add embarrassment to injury, the film also hops back and forth between the current "the world is in danger" timeline to the past lives of each Watchmen member. This factor really takes away from the actual plot of the film and makes Watchmen a colossal mess.

Alright, so I disliked the film, but I would like to point out that Watchmen has one positive: the Rorschach character who is well portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley. His voice gets a little irritating at times - he sounds like Brian Johnson of ACDC after a tracheotomy talking through an electronic voicebox (and people complain about Christian Bale's Batman voice?) - but he is the only likable and interesting character in the film. Rorschach is really the only character who struggles in the film and has some real choices to make (no, Laurie's indecision about which member of The Watchmen she wants to have sex with does not count). He is dedicated to do his job, is trying deliver justice and protect others, and paradoxically, while he is a violent monster he is the only one of The Watchmen crew that has a true moral sense. The rest of the characters and cast are all boring - except in the case of Dr. Manhattan, who is just gross, and actress Malin Akerman, who is just flat-out bad.

I have never read a Watchmen comic book - in fact, I did not even know that an original print source material existed for Watchmen until I heard of this film's production. Well, after seeing the film, I certainly will not be rushing out to read a Watchmen comic - or go out of my way to see another Zach Snyder film, for that matter. The film was ridiculously overlong, ridiculously convoluted, ridiculously performed, ridiculously presented, ridiculously obscene.... ridiculous.

As the phrase "Who is watching The Watchmen?" continuously pops up from scene to scene throughout the film, I solidly answer each time: "Not me, never again."

CBC Rating: 4/10

Cold Souls (2009)

One Man's Chickpea Is Another Man's Relic

- In an amusing and subtle stroke of genius, Paul Giamatti plays "himself" in Cold Souls (2009). The many film critics who claim that all Giamatti does is play himself in any film get a rude awakening to their absurd claim when they see him clearly not playing himself as he is playing himself in Cold Souls, the first feature film from writer/director Sophie Barthes.

Paul has a problem: while working on the play "Uncle Vanya," he has absorbed too much of the character into his daily life and feels weighed down, depressed, and unable to do his work on stage. His agent gives him a bizarre solution: soul extraction. That's right: if you are feeling too low to bear it one more day, just go to Dr. Flintstein (played by David Strathairn) and he will take your soul away. Strathairn is the film's salesman - trying to sell the film's science fiction element of soul extraction and storage - and his sales pitch is a hit. Flintstein convinces the desperate Paul to extract his soul to unburden him - and it works, sort of.... The weight is gone, the burden is gone, and the pain is gone; however, as Dr. Flintstein says, "soullessness has its own peculiarities."

Heaped on top of his frustrated amazement that his soul looks like a chickpea, Paul is not himself any longer: he cannot feel, he cannot perform, and he cannot love his wife - all of which distresses him. Paul eventually gets fed up with not being himself, but when he returns to Flintstein to have his soul put back in his body, he finds it missing - lost somewhere in the ever-popular Russian black market for American souls. Traveling with Russian soul-trafficker Nina (Dina Korzun) and running a borrowed soul of a Russian poet, Paul goes in search of his soul before it is forever lost.

Cold Souls is similar to writer/director Sophie Barthes previous short film Happiness (2006), where a woman buys happiness in a box; the ideas of identity, persevering through life's weight, and playing God are told through the film in a very surreal dark comedy way. The film's aesthetics are representative of a cold and soulless state with its dim lighting and mellow coloring (where no color clearly exposes itself) while also letting the quirky side of the film come through at the same time.

The film's poignancy is complimented very well by the extremely effective comedy that can be credited both to the flat-out funny sets of dialogue and Paul Giamatti's performance. The character is obviously not simply a mirror version of Giamatti. How can Giamatti be playing himself in the film in the first place? He is playing himself with no soul and then a different soul - that's not "playing oneself," one has to act and get into a role that does in fact differ from his or her own person. Giamatti arrives at a high level of acting in the film perfectly handling the comedic and vulnerable sides to the character (even giving us something extra with his "Vanya").

The soul is important to us human beings; whether one believes that humans have a soul or not, people view things that "have soul" as desirable and substantial while things that are "soulless" are viewed as undesirable and are void of life and feeling. With quirk and cold, Cold Souls takes a look at how the soul defines us as individual human beings and how important it is to not let that go. Cold Souls might look and feel cold and dreary but is very much alive thanks to the vision of Sophie Barthes and the vibrant performance from Paul Giamatti.

CBC Rating: 8/10

State Of Play (2009)

Crowe Carries This Little Thriller


- We have seen murder mysteries, journalists trying to get the big story, and corrupt politicians before in film history - and State Of Play (2009) meshes all of these sub-genres into one pretty good film. The first half of the film leads the audience to believe that they are in for a great thriller but the second half lets the film down and it becomes a not-so-great thriller by the time the end credits begin to roll. I don't know.... Maybe my expectations are just too high because Russell Crowe has not been in a bad film since hitting superstardom with L.A. Confidential back in 1997? Despite its shortcomings State Of Play is an engaging and recommendable film.

The streets of Washington D.C. sure are dangerous and scandalous (and Marion Barry isn't even around anymore): one simple alley-way murder leads D.C. journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) into the scandal and conspiracy that surrounds his old friend and current Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). This is not your run-of-the-mill Lewinski-type scandal however; murder is commonplace and there is no one around to trust.

While the plot succeeds in being a good MacGuffin for a great Russell Crowe performance and character, I am not buying the story in its entirety. The story's entire sense of danger and evil presence comes from a corporation called PointCorp, which is trying to make a lot of money overseas in the War on Terror and domestically with its own attempt at privatizing Homeland Security. I am sorry, but in an era of the US Government buying up one third of the US auto industry and trying to take over US healthcare, I have a hard time buying into this idea of a "privatization of Homeland Security" that the film presents.

The underlying threat in State Of Play is a bit of a stretch but the film's script suffers further from indefensibly bad writing. First of all, the film's ending is poorly rushed with an awkward tugging on the heart strings cheese-fest ending that just had to be the studio's idea. If it was not the studio's idea, shame on the handful of writers who wrote the flick. The final "twist" feels tacked on too even though, when you stop and think about it, the "twist" cannot be an unimportant tack-on because it is so integral to the overall plot! Odd....

If the poorly-written ending was not bad enough, the pointless ragging on Crowe's Cal character that occurs throughout the film makes the script look worse. Cal is constantly having his motives, objectivity, and friendship called into question for just about everything he does in the film even though it is pretty darn clear that this character assassination is complete bull shyte. Cal knows how to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of D.C. press and politics and may be a bit emotionally removed sometimes but he is also clearly motivated by his friendship with Collins and by what is right in general. Cal is a good man and it is frustrating to watch him being picked on by the writers in a desperate attempt to add depth of character in an event and mystery driven plot.

The bulk of the performances seen in the film are good rather than great - or are just flat-out non-entities. Big-time Hollywood stars Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Jeff Daniels, and Robin Wright Penn show up and probably allowed the studio and distributor to sleep better at night but they do not really turn in performances worth their seven-figure fee. Ben Affleck is up to his usual standard of banality and weakness in his role as Stephen Collins, no surprises here. All his whining about possibly entering into the world of politics better be doubly false, as he is one terrible and irritating congressman here in this film! Jason Bateman is about the only supporting star who throws around any real weight, terrifically playing against type, and, even though Michael Berresse is not much of a recognizable face, he gives one of the better performances in the film as the positively creepy Robert Bingham.

Having said all of that, there are a couple of film-carrying positives that make State Of Play a very worthwhile film. Director Kevin Macdonald mishandles some scenes that end up cheesy or rushed but, overall, he does a great job forming an engaging thriller. State Of Play is visually splendid with excellent cinematography, art direction, and excellent scene framing and is intensely atmospheric with a lot of very tense scenes - no small thanks due to Macdonald.

However, it is pretty clear that Russell Crowe is the only truly great thing about the film. Crowe has played a lot of very different roles in the past, but he is often cast as tough hardy men who would prefer to stay home with the family but, motivated by duty or the severity of circumstance, will beat the living tar out of the bad guys. Here in State Of Play, Crowe successfully down-plays against type in his role as Cal McAffrey, a good man whose duty to his friendship and what is right take precedent in everything that he does. Cal is probably frightened more often than he is stone-cold confident, his veteran wisdom overcoming any type of brashness or hopes at heroism. Russell Crowe is good enough on his own to get the audience invested into the character and film as a whole and is enough of a reason to recommend State Of Play.

CBC Rating: 7/10

A Serious Man (2009)

The Serious Coens

- The day that the Coen Brothers deliver something expected is the day that the world ends. After all of the praise and success of their Oscar winning thriller No Country For Old Men (2007), the Coens continue to resist the calls to churn out another thriller by following up their quirky CIA comedy Burn After Reading (2008) with a religiously-toned and character-centered look at life's randomness: A Serious Man (2009).

Basically, the Coen Brothers get to play God in A Serious Man. That's right: invoking the structure and lessons found in the Book of Job and then some (pay particular attention to the opening scenes and consider them throughout the film), A Serious Man tells the story of the tragedy-ridden college professor Larry Gopnick who is in a desperate state searching for the meaning of his troubles and life as a whole. Within a late-1960s suburban Minnesota setting, Larry looks like he could lose it all with each new problem: his wife is having an affair with his colleague (forcing Larry to live at the dumpy Jolly Roger hotel), his kids ignore and disrespect him, one of his students is trying to bribe him, his tenure is up in the air, and this would become a run-on sentence if I listed all of the problems that Larry's brother has. Larry looks for answers to life's questions amidst his turmoil in a dramatic and surprisingly hilarious journey that only the Coens could craft up.

A Serious Man is an extremely interesting and engaging film that is both a departure for the Coen Brothers and a return to their roots. In many ways, A Serious Man is similar to previous Coen Brothers films No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading in that it further explores the randomness of life. Larry's explanation of the Uncertainty Principle, mirroring his own personal situation, "we never really know what's going on" could be switched with the CIA Superior's question "what have we learned here" in Burn After Reading and could be answered by Ellis' "you can't stop what's coming" in No Country For Old Men. In other ways, A Serious Man is similar to Coen Brothers classics Barton Fink (1991) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) with its focus on one lead character's troubles and its heavy use of symbolism. Nothing in the film can be taken lightly and multiple viewings reveal deeper meanings in every scene. Frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins also returns to shoot the picture and continues to prove why he is the modern day maestro of light and color in the film industry with a masterful conduction of the film's cinematography.

In other ways still, A Serious Man could not be more different than the rest of the Coens' filmography. A Serious Man is arguably the film that is the most personal for the Coens, as many elements of the plot were borrowed from their lives growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. The mixture of humor and drama is quite perfect for the story the Coens want to tell, some scenes are as funny as Burn After Reading and others are as tense as No Country For Old Men, but the juggling of the two is handled differently than they have been in other Coen Brothers films.

Also, while no big Hollywood stars can be seen in A Serious Man, an actor's performance has overshadowed the script and film-making for the first time ever in a Coen Brothers film. As interesting the story is and as engaging the Coens' style is, Michael Stuhlbarg's Golden Globe-nominated performance of Larry Gopnick is the absolute highlight of the film. Stuhlbarg's relatable and twitchy yet laid-back portrayal of the soft-spoken, tired, and desperate Larry Gopnick is reason enough to watch A Serious Man and is, for my money, the film's greatest strength. Stuhlbarg headlines a great non-starlet cast: familiar faces Richard Kind and Adam Arkin give good showings, Fred Melamed is a particular supporting force, and young newcomer Aaron Wolff is especially good as Larry's selfish, pot-smoking, "F Troop" watching, soon-to-be-Bar Mitzvahed son Danny.

While no doubt enjoying a somewhat brain-free film now and then, I typically like my films to be both entertaining and substantive. The Coen Brothers always deliver both entertainment and substance in their films (even if the only substance can be found in their clever humor or visual style) and their 2009 effort, A Serious Man, is no exception. However, I would cite A Serious Man as the only film in the Coens arsenal in which the cerebral elements outweighs the entertainment. Usually the Coens master a great balance when it comes to thought and fun - even their thrillers, while surely dark, are "fun" on a cinematic enjoyment level - but A Serious Man is easily the most serious Coen entry. Is this factor a bad thing that hurts the film? No, I would not say that at all. I will say, however, that the viewer does have to pay extra close attention, look past what is merely being presented or said, recall prior scenes with a special effort, and really think hard about what the Coen Brothers are saying in the film. A Serious Man is a very interesting film with an incredible Michael Stuhlbarg performance either way - the Coen Brothers do it again and deliver another brilliant film.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Up (2009)

An Ultimate Pixar Film

- Disney/Pixar has been the most consistent film institution when it comes to making entertaining films. Sure, they slipped a bit with Cars (2006) and Ratatouille (2007), but they shot right back to the top with WALL-E (2008) and here again with Up in 2009.

May the Up puns commence: Disney/Pixar continues to "Up"grade! Up is "Up"roarus entertainment! A s"UP"er film! Up is an "Up"per cut of an adventure! This Disney/Pixar film "Up"stages the summer blockbuster competition! Up is "Up" there with the best from Disney/Pixar!

All shtick but all true - Up is one of the finest motion pictures from Disney/Pixar since their 1995 feature film debut.

The Disney/Pixar films have delivered some out-of-this-world imaginative main characters in the past: Toy Story (1995) is about toys that are alive, Monsters Inc. (2001) stars two of the most lovable monsters ever, Cars features talking cars - every main character in a Disney/Pixar film has been a character out of human fantasy. The situation is different in Up however, this film is about one Carl Fredricksen, a seemingly average slightly-cantankerous retired elderly man, and an enthusiastic Boy Scout Russell.

Carl's retirement could be going smoother however, he is a widower and the trees and fields that once surrounded his home have been replaced with shops and skyscrapers. Since the passing of his wife, Ellie, Carl feels a massive hole in his life - Ellie wanted so much to travel to Paradise Falls in South America, just like her and Carl's childhood hero Charles Muntz, and for years had a scrapbook she was eager to fill with photos of her journeys there. Carl decides that he is going to fill that hole and get away from it all by attaching thousands of helium balloons to his house and take off to Paradise Falls to fulfill Ellie's dream (and most 80-year-olds just want to sky-dive for a thrill!). The trip takes many unexpected turns however as Carl finds the over-eager Boy Scout Russell stowed away on his front porch and the two of them bump into storms, talking dogs, and a creature they can only call a "snipe" as they travel to and through Paradise Falls.

Up is a wonderful animated adventure. Carl and Russell bond, have fun, get into danger, and enter into other such entertaining escapades! While the film does include excitement, humor, and adventure, one thing I did not expect the film to carry was its powerful emotional component. Up is probably the most moving Disney/Pixar film because while there is adventure and fun, the film is primarily about Carl's love for his wife and this part of the story pulls out the tears out of the audience like a magician pulls a series of tied-together handkerchiefs out of his sleeve. When my wife and I saw the film for the first time, she cried so much that the only tissue that she had with her was sopping wet and destroyed beyond all recognition by the end of the movie. But the tears that the audience cries are good tears, coming because we relate to Carl's undying love for his wife, and show how much of an effective and powerful film Up is.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Amreeka (2009)

Amreeka The Not-so Beautiful

- 2009's Amreeka, the story of a Palestinian mother and son's move to Illinois during the early part of the Iraq War, frustrates rather than impresses. Written and directed by Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis (writer of a handful of "L Word" episodes), Amreeka has a great lead character and fresh subject matter that is unfortunately approached poorly and is blindsided by its heavily one-sided political viewpoint.

Muna Farah (played exceptionally well by Nisreen Faour) is the central character in Amreeka. She is a good mother and a good person who leaves Palestine with her son Fadi to Illinois, fleeing her destabilized country and bruised past for a better life and new opportunities for her son. Staying with her sister until she is able to go out on her own, Muna finds America a tougher place than she had hoped: she has difficulty finding a similar job at an American bank as she had in Palestine and her son Fadi is picked on at school, all presumably because they are Arabs. The strength of Amreeka is its portrayal of the new American immigrant (as opposed to the commonly though-of old immigrants such as the Irish, Italian, etc.) in modern times. Also, Nisreen Faour's performance of the great character of Muna is the highlight of the film - Faour is charming, funny, and all-around likable.

The attention given to a new set of immigrants is refreshing and you have to love Nisreen Faour and the Muna character, even if Faour's is the only great performance in the film (although I am still happy to see the talented Alia Shawkat getting more-and-more work as an actress). However, this is where my personal praises must end, as the positive things about Amreeka are few and far between.

Cherien Dabis claims in her 2009 interview with the Huffington Post that "The film [Amreeka] is not really political. It's political in context but the heart of the story is the relationship between the mother and son." I found the opposite to be the case. The mother-son relationship gets lost in the political context of the film; in fact, the characters basically go their separate ways, in a storytelling sense, once they get to their relatives' house: Muna begins to look for work and Fadi faces the horrors of high school. The two share significant screen time together only a few times since coming to Illinois, the rest of the film is a comment on how America has a negative impact on Arabs.

Amreeka depicts the political and social climate of the United States as overcast with some sort of white protestant male conspiracy where minorities, specifically Arabs in this film, cannot get ahead and are constantly challenged (if that is the case, when will this supposed free ride for white dudes start working for me?). Most of the white males in the film are the Farahs' sources of trouble - the no-patience White Castle boss, the cops, the bully at school, the passive Current Events teacher - the only white male characters worth anything are minorities themselves: a Jewish-American and an alternative geek-cool teen.

Dabis says earlier in the Huffington Post interview that "People can be lazy in their storytelling and then characters become one dimensional and easy to villanize." While undoubtedly not her initial intent, Dabis sums up what she herself has done with Amreeka in this statement. Life in the United States, just like any other place in the world, is tough; and Muna, in the face of those quick to damn the whole of the United States, defiantly says as much. Unfortunately, Muna is the only level-headed, sane, relatable character in the film and the only character with any tangible depth. Her sister is a Palestinian-American with no love for anything American, anything; her nieces are little Western-influenced brats, with Fadi even joining ranks eventually; and I have already discussed the film's portrayal of white American males. It seems as if Dabis failed to adhere to her own code of character creating and, in the process of creating the extremely likable and well-thought-out character of Muna, she filled the rest of the film with "lazy," "one-dimensional," and "easy to villainize" caricatures.

That being said, I would not go on to say that Amreeka is a film to be completely avoided. It is nice to see a film about America's new immigrants and Nisreen Faour's caring performance of Muna Farah is reason enough to check the film out. However, the political angle on the film hurts in more ways than one - and it would be offensive if it was not so stupid. One particular scene featuring a schoolhouse "debate" on the Iraq War between Muna's niece Salma and the bully Mike is particularly hilarious and reveals the film's heavy political slant. When Mike declares "my brother is over there (Iraq) fighting for freedom," Salma ever-so-intelligently replies "if that is what you really think I feel sorry for you." Amreeka paints a grim picture of the United States that, while certainly true in many individual cases, is not representative of the entire country or the collective white ethnicity. If this is what you really think the United States is, I feel sorry for you.

CBC Rating: 5/10

Whip It (2009)

Whip It Good

- Drew Barrymore's directorial debut Whip It (2009) is a hit - and yes, that is a roller derby pun and a bad one at that. But it was the only thing I could think of for an opening line, so deal with it.

Directed by actress Drew Barrymore and written by Shauna Cross (based off of her novel "Derby Girl"), Whip It is the story of lost teen Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page). Bliss is not exactly used to sitting at the cool table during the lunch period at school and is being pressured by her mother into participating in loathsome beauty pageants at home - about the only thing that Bliss constantly does is not fit in. What Bliss really wants to do is play roller derby and be herself, which opens Bliss up to a lot of struggles against herself, her family, and good decision-making.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss and does her usual Hollywood persona thing, except she is a bit more reserved and fragile here in Whip It than she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Juno (2007), where she played a much more headstrong character. Some of my fellow armchair film reviewers seem to love to hate Ellen Page but I will not hold back my praising of her great performance here in this film. Page is endearing, funny, relatable, has great screen presence, and excels in her role as a result.

Outside of Page's Bliss character, the film is filled to the brim with supporting characters. The smaller roles are terrifically entertaining and feature such talent as Juliette Lewis, whose veteran acting skills are put to great use here in her portrayal of Bliss' main derby rival Iron Maven; Andrew Wilson, who clearly takes after his more talented brother Luke, being very funny as Bliss' derby coach; Daniel Stern, who is a huge delight as Bliss' father; Jimmy Fallon, who gives a very funny few minutes as the roller derby play-by-play/commentator; and Drew Barrymore picked an excellent bit part for herself: Smashly Simpson, Bliss' teammate who is a few wrenches short of a tool set.

The more significant supporting roles are also played extremely well: Marcia Gay Harden plays Bliss' mom very effectively, being very relatable in a character that could otherwise be easy to villainize; Kristen Wiig is very entertaining as Maggie Mayhem, Bliss' mentor and teammate; and former "Arrested Development" star Alia Shawcat gives probably the best performance in the film as Bliss' best friend, Pash, who is also the film's most well-rounded character.

After seeing Whip It, I am already anticipating Barrymore's next directed project - she tells a fun story with precision and grace (as graceful as roller derbies and family squabbles get) and also seems to be able to assemble a great cast. The thing about Whip It is that the film is clearly told from a female perspective but it is not so exclusive that not everyone can get involved. Whip It digs further than your average chick flick, the themes take unexpected turns and expose a lot of life truths, and just about every character is relatable to most people on some level.

CBC Rating: 7/10

The Hangover (2009)

Maybe You Have To Be Drunk To Love This Movie?

- An example of pure shoddy audience manipulation: The Hangover (2009) begins with Phil, Stu, and Alan contacting their buddy Doug's fiancĂ© the day after his bachelor party. It seems as if Doug has gone missing after their night in Las Vegas and none of the remaining three have a clue what happened because neither can remember what happened that night. The film then rewinds to days earlier when the four friends set out to Vegas for a night of drinking, debauchery, and other stupidities - then it fast forwards hours ahead to the morning and subsequent hangover, where Phil, Stu, and Alan cannot find Doug. This hopeless trio continues to get into more trouble as they try to figure out what happened to their friend and what even happened the night before.

The #1 US box-office-grossing R-rated comedy to date, The Hangover is of the Judd Apatow/Will Ferrell school of supposed comedy that is ruining the modern comedy genre: where supposedly "grown up" males act like moronic adolescents, get plenty stupid on the sauce, and are generally void of any intelligence whatsoever. Nope - no substance here.

The acting and characters are not worth much either. Bradley Cooper slithers his way through the film on greasy charm and arrogance, Ed Helms has been way funnier on "The Daily Show," and Justin Bartha is a complete write-off (though I suppose I should be grateful that he is not annoying like he is in the awful National Treasure films). Zach Galifianakis is clearly the funniest one of the bunch but even he and his character often resort to gross shock humor over any real comedy or wit.

However, despite all of the worthless aspects of the film, I will say that The Hangover does include a hefty-sized handful of genuinely creative and funny moments that does set it apart from other modern comedies and does, ultimately, make it watchable. The Hangover did not leave me barreling around on the floor belly laughing but it did not disappoint: this messy, idiotic film was what its trailer had promised.

CBC Rating: 6/10

District 9 (2009)

District 9 Is No 5-star Film

- As if Africa did not have enough problems. War, genocide, corruption, poverty, disease.... aliens - Africa just cannot seem to catch a break.

District 9 (2009) begins two decades ago when a large alien spacecraft hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa and a human-sized insect-like alien race is introduced to Earth. The aliens (called "Prawns" by humans) quickly overstay their welcome. The Prawns' animal-like behavior and lack of understanding of personal property anger the South African population and end up forced into a segregated community that resembles a fugitive camp. When Prawn crime, weapons exchange, and inter-species prostitution continue to plague the town of Johannesburg, the Multi-National United (MNU) attempts to relocate the Prawns to a more secured camp outside of the town. The Prawn round up, headed by MNU man Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), does not go well and leads to many alien deaths. Wikus specifically finds himself infected with a strange Prawn substance which changes him in a drastic way and makes him a wanted man.

The biggest name associated with District 9 is The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy and King Kong (2005) director Peter Jackson, who produces the film. Like the Peter Jackson films mentioned, District 9 is a stunning special effects piece. The animated Prawns are amazing (not looking computer generated or artificial at all) and the film is filled with giant explosions and other big action sequences.

The film is also interesting in many respects as well. Since the film is primarily South African-made, the political undertones most likely reflect the filmmakers' thoughts and experiences with the Apartheid and other South African issues, not American ideas of left vs. right that many have been claiming. The film however does portray an interesting and believable scenario of how humans would deal with an alien situation like the one shown in the film. The world is filled with those who fight first without thinking and hug first without thinking, with the level-headed population in the minority. District 9 portrays this well. The way this is played out in the film is very believable, I can definitely see how there could be horrific violence against an alien race and an idiotic movement towards alien rights at the same time if such a situation could take place.

The lead character, Wikus van der Merwe played by Sharlto Copley, is also a very compelling and relatable character. He is a flawed everyman, dedicated to his job, deeply in love with his wife, and has to go to extraordinary lengths to overcome the grim situation that faces him. Copley is excellent as Wikus, giving subtle depth to each scene, the right amount of intensity, and some real heart that lends itself wonderfully to the more tender and heartbreaking scenes.

The film unfortunately disappoints in other areas however. The film paints the Prawns as animal-like, stupid, savage, and the like. As a result, I had a very hard time finding sympathy for these aliens when the film tried to show violence and abuse towards them. Also, just as often as the film offers interesting themes and ideas, it turns around and dumbs down in a blink of an eye. Disctric 9 far too often resorts to soulless live-action-video-game-like filmmaking and heavy gorenography (including some of the most pointless and over-the-top movie violence to date outside of the Saw films) which greatly turned me off to the film.

I honestly cannot decide if I truly liked District 9. I suppose I would say that it is a good film overall and worth a watch but I would not call it a great film with all of the poor elements.

CBC Rating: 7/10

(500) Days Of Summer (2009)

Falling In Love Is Hard To Do

"This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story."

- When the narrator first reads those words off to us, I was expecting him to be proved wrong by the end of the film. Love prevails - come on! But boy was I wrong - and boy was I happy to be wrong: (500) Days Of Summer (2009) really hit me between the eyes, emotionally speaking; an entertaining and moving story about the relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschannel) as well as all-encompassing ideas of the nature of love.

Marc Webb's feature-length directorial debut is marked with outside-the-box style film-making and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's screenplay is wonderful - but the film could not be what it is without the stellar lead performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, who are the keepers of the film's heart. If Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are the heart, than the film's soundtrack is the soul - a hodgepodge of quirky and emotive modern alternative tunes that really heighten the emotion level of each scene.

The cast is marvelous and the entire movie is good but the greatest aspect about (500) Days Of Summer that really got to me was the degree in which I was able to personally relate to it. The film really speaks to relationships in a very realistic way that I connected to - not necessarily because I could relate verbatim to every scene in the film but, especially as a guy, I certainly related to the pain, happiness, and everything else that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom character had to go through during his relationship with Summer. Sometimes love only goes one way - and that is OK; it might hurt but it is life.

A great service would be done to the entire genre if more romantic comedies had more in common with (500) Days Of Summer.

CBC Rating: 8/10

Moon (2009)

A Welcomed Addition To The Sci-fi Genre

- In the future, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is close to the end of his 3-year contract on the Moon. In charge of a lunar mining base, Sam is the sole human being on the moon (though the computer GERTY is with him on base as well) and is, understandably, greatly anticipating his return to his family back on Earth. But after Same gets into a moon buggy accident, he awakens to find his world turned completely and horrifically upside-down. Any more information than that and the movie is spoiled for you!

I can tell you however, that 2009's Moon is a brilliant sci-fi thriller and the finest non-franchise sci-fi film since Blade Runner (1982). They stopped making sci-fi films like Moon decades ago! One has to go all the way back to 1972's Russian psychological sci-fi thriller Solyaris or Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi wonder 2001: A Space Odyssey to find anything remotely similar to Moon - and yet, the film is comprised of its own uniqueness.

The debuting Duncan Jones delivers both a gripping original story with one mind-blowing twist after another as the film's story man and a great visual product as the film's director. Jones also directs the underrated Sam Rockwell to what is undoubtedly Rockwell's best performance to date; every emotion imaginable being borrowed to portray a very interesting man who is facing some very complicated problems (you may also recognize Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY).

The 2009 sci-fi film Moon - like 2001, Solyaris, and Blade Runner - is a sci-fi standout within its rich cinematic decade.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Public Enemies (2009)

Johnny Dillinger

- Director Michael Mann has experience in both gangster films (Heat (1995)) and period dramas (The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), Ali (2001)) and he puts both genres together in Public Enemies (2009), a film about 1930s bank-robber/gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who is devoted to apprehending him. Public Enemies is a good film but is also unfortunately disappointing in some respects.

Public Enemies has an interesting premise. Instead of being a film about John Dillinger's rise and fall, Public Enemies begins with Dillinger at the peak of his crime-spree and sees him move forward into a world that is no longer compatible with his kind of bank-robbing. This leads to interesting scenes and plot turns where Dillinger has to face the facts and adapt. Also, the film's depiction of the 1930s gangster life and FBI struggles is excellent and interesting. Unfortunately, there are many aspects about the film that are not horrible but definitely disappointing.

Michael Mann is, overall, a good director; I like the vast majority of films in his filmography, especially Collateral (2004) and The Insider (1999). But for Public Enemies, Mann films each scene with a sort of pseudo-documentary feel and I am not sure that it was the right approach. This documentary style does serve a number of scenes quite well - especially the scene in which Dillinger and Red Hamilton try to escape the Texas Rangers in the forest - but too many other times the film looks like a Discovery Channel production. The look of the film is not bad by a long shot, but would it have been better to film Public Enemies in a more cinematic way - dare I suggest, a neo film noir style? - I think so.

Public Enemies is historical fiction with an emphasis on the FICTION half of the genre - much of what happens in the film is completely false or out of order. One could write off my taking issue with the film's disregard for history due to my great interesting in history, quipping back that Public Enemies is only a movie and not meant to teach history.... Or you can consider yourself warned that history is thrown to the wind in the film. The choice is yours.

The performances in Public Enemies are good but they are also disappointing and not much to get excited about. Both Johnny Depp and Christian Bale are solid but they both have done better work. Bale looks to be sleepwalking through the entire film and Depp is just not as spectacular as he usually is. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose (2007), Big Fish (2003)), who plays Dillinger's woman Billie Frechette, and Stephen Lang, who plays Texas Ranger leader Charles Winstead, however are very impressive.

The technical aspects (cinematography, sets, costumes, etc.) might be better, but when it comes to cinematic entertainment I would pick the Lawrence Tierney starring Max Nosseck directed 1945 film Dillinger over Public Enemies any day. However, with the good performances, interesting story, and handful of intense scenes, Public Enemies is a good and recommendable film. Still, Mann's latest is a mile away from being The Untouchables (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), The Departed (2006), or any other great gangster film made in the last twenty-five years.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Dillinger (1945)

A Good 40s Gangster Piece

- Max Nosseck's 1945 film Dillinger is an enjoyable gangster flick about the notorious '30s bank robber John Dillinger. This film is not a completely true historical retelling or an accurate portrayal of the real John Dillinger, often times leaning on and embellishing upon unproven historical rumors and making Dillinger more ruthless than he actually was. However, the resulting lack of history in 1945's Dillinger is a great screen gangster character and enjoyable crime flick; and if one does not know jack squat about the real story of John Dillinger, nothing is going to be a bother in the first place!

Lawrence Tierney stars in his first headlining role as John Dillinger and gives a great performance. Tierney is simply perfect for the tough as nails and mildly psychotic gangster role, perhaps because Tierney is himself a thug (his bar brawls and time in jail ended up hurting his promising career though). Seriously, Tierney has a fantastic lion-like screen presence, seizing the focus of every shot and burning a hole through the screen with a fervid glare.

The rest of the cast does a good job in their roles as well. Edmund Lowe performs his role well as Dillinger's screen mob mentor Specs Green, Marc Lawrence is especially memorable as one of Dillinger's gang members, and Anne Jeffreys is a knock-out as the infamous "Lady In Red." Dillinger also has a real nice look to it with a dark guiding force and rushes at a brisk pace (and it has to with a 71 minute runtime). An Oscar-nominated Philip Yordan screenplay; enticing bank robberies, shootouts, and escapes; and an enjoyable Dimitri Tiomkin score add entertainment a-plenty to Dillinger.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Little Caesar (1931)

A Great Little Gangster Picture

- The pioneering gangster picture Little Caesar (1931) is still a must see movie 80 years after its first release. Acting legend Edward G. Robinson stars in his break-out film about small-time crook Rico Bandello's rise to the big-time. It does not even matter that the rest of the cast do not give much in the way of performances (although I did enjoy Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rico's pal Joe and Thomas E. Jackson as Sergeant Flaherty), Robinson carries the entire film on his back. Here, in this simple and short but sweet and stylish gangster flick, was the first time that audiences were introduced to Robinson's one-of-a-kind screen delivery and presence - and it would prove to be influential. As we watch Robinson's Rico character climb up the ladder from gas station robber to 30s crime mogul we not only see the template that others would follow in future gangster films but also an outline to the gangster problem that the United States faced during that time. Little Caesar (1931) is an integral piece to the gangster film genre: along with fellow gangster films The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), it sparked a wave of gangster films from the 1930s onward and Edward G. Robinson's terrific portrayal of Enrico "Little Caesar" Bandello would infinitely influence the genre.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Bullets Or Ballots (1936)

Robinson vs. Bogart - Round 1

- Over a decade before legendary actor Edward G. Robinson co-starred with fellow legendary actor Humphrey Bogart in their last and most popular (and, in my opinion, highest quality) film together, Key Largo (1948) - where Robinson plays a supporting bad guy to Bogie's lead hero - the two starred in their first film together back in 1936: Bullets Or Ballots - only Bogart plays the supporting bad guy to Robinson's hero.

This little 1936 gangster film opens by reminding the viewer that its setting is its current age of gangsters, rackets, and the RICO Act through a fictional Movietone-like cinema preview as gangster tycoon Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) and his mean #2 man "Bugs" Fenner (Humphrey Bogart) watch on in disgust. Crime is running amok - and the cops are upping the ante after Captain Dan McLaren (Joe King) is promoted to Commissioner. Enjoying all the perks that being a weathered and respected cop, Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson) is stunned and angered when he finds out that he has been cut from the force as part of McLaren's cleaning house - angered so much that the next time Blake and McLaren meet, Blake very publicly punches him out. Kruger feels like he could use a man like Blake to help him and his rackets duck the newly upped police activity and attention and, after Blake's public break with the police department, brings Blake aboard his outfit. But are Blake's loyalties with Kruger's or is he really just in on a sting?

Robinson gets to play type-against-type as a smart and tough-as-nails cop and gangster; incredibly fun is watching him do his tough guy act and Robinson carries most of the film by himself as a result. Bogart terrifically plays Kruger's oily and violent #2 man Fenner, especially distrustful of Johnny Blake, and it is also incredibly fun to watch Bogie to his evil guy act next to Robinson doing his tough guy act. A nicely done gangster performance from Barton MacLane and a beautiful Joan Blondell as a Robin Hood racketeer and Robinson's love interest add more great performances and characters to the film.

Bullets Or Ballots is a very entertaining film but I wonder if it would be a throw-away gangster flick had it not been for the presence of Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. I found the film to be a nice sit-back-and-kick-your-feet-up enjoyable classic, nothing too brilliant but everything entertaining - the enjoyable characters of Robinson and Bogart complimented by a great story and atmospheric lighting. Bullets Or Ballots is a very good piece of the classic gangster genre, that is for sure, even if it is no Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932), or The Public Enemy (1931).

CBC Rating: 8/10

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Gangster Gold

"What's the rumpus?"

- In an unnamed American town in the earlier part of the 20th Century (it is your guess as to which one that is, because the film doesn't tell you.... those Coens), a murderous game of loyalty pins two gangs against each other. When Leo (Albert Finney), the leader of the town's Irish gang, refuses to deliver the cheating Jewish bookie, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), over to Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), the leader of the local Italian gang, the two clash and takes the whole town into the rumble. Leo's right hand man Tom Reagan (one of the screen's greatest screen anti-heroes, played by Gabriel Byrne) is stuck in the middle of it all and more: having an affair with Leo's girl and Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Throw in Johnny's monstrous right hand Eddie Dane (the most frightening Coen Brothers villain, played by J.E. Freeman, until Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (2007)), another "fickle" bookie Mink Larouie (Steve Buscemi in his first Coen Brothers role), and Tom's tremendous debt and you have a dangerous Coen Brothers fracas.

Miller's Crossing (1990) is often mislabeled as an homage movie - insinuating that the Coen Brothers are merely nodding at and remaking their favorite gangster films with the film. While elements of the plot are inspired by Dashiell Hammett's "The Glass Key" and the fedoras, the trench coats, and the grimy streets are familiar for those fans of the golden age of gangster films, Miller's Crossing is also most obviously a highly original Coen Brothers film.

Plain on the nose on the viewer's face, one can easily see that the Brothers leave their unique visual and stylish cinematic John Hancock on each scene in Miller's Crossing. Just like other Coen Brothers films, the Coens surround themselves with talented people to help them create their world. Before there was Roger Deakins, there was Barry Sonnenfeld – and Miller's Crossing defines his career as a cinematographer. The Coen Brothers, with Sonnenfeld's great cinematography feat and the film's excellent art-direction team, captures the essence of the era perfectly with a sort of down-in-the-dumps picture quality melded with a rugged sense of style and class. For my money, the finest scene that the Coen Brothers have ever made can be found in Miller's Crossing: the scene featuring Tom and Bernie at Miller's Crossing.

The dialogue, while at a BPM that resembles an Edward G. Robinson gangster flick, is at the same time also most definitely signature Coen Brothers. The catch-phrases and the humorous back-and-forths are identifiably Coenesque; the dialogue is sharp, funny, and so dense that one continues to discover more gems within the dialogue after each repeat viewing.

The acting in the film is also extraordinary - most of the actors having to balance different facets at once to create their eternally likable, quite interesting, and highly entertaining characters. Leaving his British accent across the pond, Finney plays Irish-American mob boss Leo with an air of power and arrogance mixed with a personality ripe for making bone-head plays and needing guidance. Leo's artistry with the Thompson is one of the greatest scenes of the film, no small part in due to him, and he has great by-play with both Polito and Byrne too. Oily charm, odd eccentricity, and a Cheshire cat grin makes Jon Polito instantly entertaining and cinematically likable but he completely sells the idea that the spastic scruffy short stack Johnny Caspar could run a town with his pocketbook at the same time (even though Johnny does not really like all of the responsibility of such a job, either). His tantrums are hilarious - and he just looks the part, come on. Marcia Gay Harden sees her finest hour in Miller's Crossing. Her Verna character is tough and seductive, ever ready to knock a sarcastic comment back your way, but she is vulnerable and desperate too - she needs a shoulder sometimes. John Turturro's performance as Bernie Bernbaum is often talked about and rightfully so. He gives an explosive performance and conveys the duality of Bernie's personality in every scene that shows Bernie as an evil crook and every scene that exposes him as a sniveling coward.

All of the supporting performances in Miller's Crossing are incredible; in fact, lead actor Gabriel Bryne is often times the quietest actor in a scene in terms of volume. Nevertheless, Byrne's quiet performance is the most powerful in the film thanks to his presence and golden delivery of the Coens' dialogue. Byrne captures the essence of the Tom Reagan character perfectly: he puts on a strong front but is out of his league when punches are actually thrown, he fights with his brain rather than his brawn, loyalty and individual responsibility are what drive him. His subtly speaks louder than Polito's screaming, his sarcasm stings worse than Leo's punches - Byrne could not be better.

The first of many Coen Brothers period films to come, Miller's Crossing is a fantastic thrill ride with slick and intelligent writing, unique and in-depth characters, heart-stopping shots, powerful imagery, and the Coens' magnificent dark sense of humor. There is no other way to put it, Miller's Crossing is a brilliant film that holds firmly to everything that makes a film great.

CBC Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Ocean's: Act One

- Most Hollywood directors would love to helm a lucrative film franchise and director Steven Soderbergh found his in the popular "Ocean's" series reconstruction. An adaptation of the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle of the same name, Soderbergh outdoes the vast majority of modern movie remakes by creating something fresh and vibrant with 2001's Ocean's Eleven.

Ocean's Eleven has the best collection of amiable crooks since Michael Caine & co. hung over the side of a cliff……. Danny Ocean is the leader of the bunch. Fresh out of prison, Ocean pins Terry Benedict, owner of three major Las Vegas casinos (including the Bellagio and MGM Grand) as his next target – but he needs a team of top thieves to successfully take Benedict's high-tech safe….

Let the heisting begin.

Ocean's Eleven is one royal flush of a slick heist film! Ted Griffin's jazzy script tells the character-driven (some more than others), funny, and engaging caper in a very tight and clever fashion. Plenty of twists and turns pop up during the film in all the right places that keeps the audience on their feet and a lot of hilarious bits of dialogue exist throughout that keep the laughs coming.

Stylish, sleek, and extremely colorful, Ocean's Eleven looks miraculous - Steven Soderbergh does the visual aspect of the film no wrong. The camera work was extremely well thought out and becomes essential to how effective the story is told but what is particularly great about Soderbergh's visual achievement in the film is the exquisite coloring. It is common knowledge that Soderbergh doubles as his own director of photography (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and every drop of color that Soderbergh dabs into every frame forms quite the stunning picture.

The cast is phenomenal; a big list of big names who give big performances. George Clooney and Brad Pitt star as Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan, respectfully - Clooney's performance is strong and convinces everyone that Danny Ocean is the clear leader of this outfit while Pitt is in full suave mode with a particularly excellent delivery of his character's laid-back comedy. Both actors have great chemistry together and the pairing surely ranks among the best screen actor duos in film as far as likability and enjoyment goes.

Clooney and Pitt stand out above the rest but one really cannot go wrong with any of the cast members: Don Cheadle (as demolitions man Basher) and Elliot Gould (as Reuben Tishkoff, the bankroll) are especially hilarious; veterans Andy Garcia (as the ruthless Terry Benedict), Carl Reiner (the once-retired Saul Bloom), and Bernie Mac (Frank Catton, the inside man) are flawless; no-namers Eddie Jemison (as Livingston Dell, the computer expert) and Shaobo Quinn (The 'Amazing' Yen, grease man) are quite good; (then) new faces Scott Caan and Casey Affleck (the frontmen) are very good as well; and even Matt Damon (as the rookie Linus Caldwell), of whom I am not always a fan, is really good in these "Ocean's" films.

About the only blemish in Ocean's Eleven is the barefaced miscasting of Julia Roberts. While certainly another big name to add on the marquee, Roberts does not personify the Bess character at all. By the way that all of the others characters talk about her, one gets the impression that Bess is supposed to be irresistibly drop-dead gorgeous - a to-die-for treasure. While a generally pretty lady, Roberts' goofy charm and giraffe-like trotting just does not fit the bill for Bess.

While certainly popular (the three films grossed over a billion dollars worldwide), Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" trilogy is unbalanced as far as quality goes since this first Ocean's film is great, the second film, Ocean's Twelve (2004), is good and the third film, Ocean's Thirteen (2007), is on the average side. Reflecting on the film within the context of the series, Ocean's Eleven easily ends up at the top of the ladder. However, thanks to the enjoyable performances from the entire star-studded cast and the fantastic direction of Steven Soderbergh, Ocean's Eleven also stands alone as simply one of the all-time great heist films.

CBC Rating: 9/10

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)

Ocean's: Act Three

- The final act in Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" Trilogy, Ocean's Thirteen (2007) sees our colorful clan of likable con-men take on Willy Bank (played by Al Pacino) after he screws their buddy Reuben out of an honest deal and into bad health. Rather than set out to steal something this time (although they find something to steal along the way), the Eleven plan to sabotage the opening of Bank's new hotel any way that they can – of course high-tech security and the FBI make the mission difficult for our crooked heroes.

While not exactly the best end to the "Ocean's" Trilogy in my view, I did find Ocean's Thirteen to be a moderately entertaining movie overall. I am not on board with the idea that Ocean's Thirteen is a step up from the commonly thought-of weak Ocean's Twelve (2004). I, in the face of a sea of film fans that say otherwise, retain the opinion that the first Ocean's film is great, the second film is good, but this third film is only average entertainment.

And what makes Ocean's Thirteen the weakest of the "Ocean's" films, you might ask? Well, while some of the comedy certainly is forced and Al Pacino is exasperatingly over-the-top, my opinion is formed largely by the film's plot....

First of all, the first two "Ocean's" films both had convoluted plots but Ocean's Thirteen notches up the convolution to a breaking point. Nearly impossible is following the plot in this movie.

Secondly, even though the Ocean's crew is on a personal vendetta, I was not able to emotionally invest in this film – something that was not hard to do for the previous films - probably due to the fact that Ocean's Thirteen is less character-oriented and more mission/gimmick-oriented than the rest of the Ocean's films.

Finally, the film's general story is fundamentally lackluster. Many fans and critics praise Ocean's Thirteen as a "return" to what worked in Ocean's Eleven but that is precisely why I found Ocean's Thirteen underwhelming. While it is fun to see the Eleven in a casino trying to steal from a casino mogul again, it is not exactly a novel place to take the characters. What was nice about the second "Ocean's" film was that it took the characters to a different place thematically and geographically – this third installment sees the characters back where they started in the trilogy. I, personally, would have liked to have seen something a little bit more innovative.

On a related note, the film's main plot carries along with it an unimaginative main villain. Ocean's Twelve went away from the casino mogul as the villain and went with a master thief – a shadow of the Ocean's crew themselves – and it was a fresh direction for the trilogy. In Ocean's Thirteen, the series went soft and backtracked to another Benedict-like villain in Al Pacino's cartoonish Willy Bank character. Pacino was on screen not two minutes and I was already bored with the character – again, I would have liked to have seen some innovation with a more inspired villain.

Ocean's Thirteen is not a bad movie by any means - the Clooney/Pitt-led cast is just as entertaining as they have been throughout the series (sans Julia Roberts! Yay!) and movie maestro Steven Soderbergh blankets everything in a stylish and colorful visual flare. However, because it gets lazy and simply reverts to the formula of Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Thirteen just does not quite measure up to its "Ocean's" predecessors. So, while a bit of a disappointing end for Ocean's crew, Ocean's Thirteen is entertaining enough as the final installment of the trilogy... I just recommend the first two "Ocean's" films a lot more.

CBC Rating: 7/10

Ocean's Twelve (2004)

Ocean's: Act Two

- Ocean's Twelve (2004) has a reputation as the weakest of Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" Trilogy – but I disagree. Amidst a massive majority that claims otherwise, I retain the opinion that the first Ocean's film is great, this second film is good, and the third film is good but on the mediocre side.

While not matching the previous "Ocean's" film step for step in terms of quality, Ocean's Twelve feels like an original next step in a logical direction. The last thing that I would have wanted to see is a second "Ocean's" film that is cut from the same cloth as the first film – and Ocean's Twelve delivers a novel next step for the Ocean crew in a stylish and entertaining fashion....

Having our crooked crew face the consequences of the crime committed in the previous film was a very satisfying thematic development. We all know going into an "Ocean's" film that we are going to have fun watching the Eleven have fun ripping people off, but Ocean's Twelve delivers more in the way of interest and depth than expected through the way that the characters are faced with tangible and daunting obstacles.

Also, giving more dimension and importance to Brad Pitt's Rusty character through the newly introduced Isabel character (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is a very nice addition to the cast). This was also nice to see in the "Ocean's" sequel, mainly because Rusty is my favorite character in the series.

Moreover, placing the Eleven far away from a casino and into the corrupt cobblestone streets of Amsterdam was very refreshing. I had a great time watching Danny, Rusty, & co. high-stepping it in Vegas – but it is nice to see the series broaden itself by taking the characters someplace new. The series course correction from Las Vegas to underworld Europe gives the film a different kind of edge that separates it from the other two "Ocean's" films and is refreshing to see in general.

Sadly, Ocean's Twelve does include some elements that taste a bit bitter…. including a pointless, tacked-on ending for the Isabel character; a few too many sci-fi elements; a slower pace than the first "Ocean's" film; and the really horrible idea that as part of the film's caper Julia Roberts' character Bess should go undercover as Julia Roberts (no joke, unfortunately). Ocean's Twelve is not as good as Ocean's Eleven, clearly.

Acknowledging the film's imperfections and reputation, I would argue that Ocean's Twelve triumphs as quality entertainment. On top of the fresh new paths that the film takes, Steven Soderbergh paints the each frame of the film wonderfully. One of the reasons that Ocean's Eleven is such a great film is Soderbergh's excellent eye for visuals and Ocean's Twelve succeeds in a similar manner. Also, the entire Clooney/Pitt-lead cast, again, perform at a top level, creating wonderful characters that drive the film and contribute considerably to the risibility and enjoyment factor of the entire film.

Overall, Ocean's Twelve does what all good sequels should: have something unique for the characters to do and have somewhere unique for those characters to go. No, Ocean's Twelve is not as good as Ocean's Eleven, but it features plenty of admirable and entertaining aspects that add up to a quality crime film and an enjoyable "Ocean's" sequel as far as I am concerned.

CBC Rating: 8/10