Tuesday, February 14, 2012

DVD REVIEWS - The Ides of March

The pressure of trying to run a successful political campaign is undeniable. We can deduce this simply from watching the effort put in by candidates on their campaign trail, hopping from location to location, speaking and debating until you either accept defeat or you emerge victorious. To make matters worse, these politicians and their staff members constantly find themselves under attack by those who do not want to see them succeed. Faced with this adversity, the atmosphere of a campaign quickly turns into a BAMN situation. The only goal? Win, by any means necessary.

And that is the view that The Ides of March, presents to moviegoers. To win, to climb ahead, to do whatever it takes to come out on top. That certainly is the mantra of Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the press secretary for the Pennsylviania State Governor and presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). He believes in what Gov. Morris stands for as a candidate, but more importantly, he believes in himself. He doesn't look forward to one day seeing Gov. Morris in the White House, but instead basking in the reflected glory that would ultimately land him a job on Pennsylvania Ave.

Those that Meyers encounters during the Ohio Primary, including Morris' campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as well as Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for the rival Democratic candidate are all seasoned veterans. As such, they have a more realistic grasp of the political world. Zara believes that there is nothing more important than loyalty and Duffy shows a prowess to manipulate others for the benefit of his campaign. These men outwardly display the fatigue of countless political campaigns and demonstrate that they will do whatever they have to to ensure the success of their candidate.

The tension created by the primary leads the players looking for any form of release. For Meyers, it means having sexual encounters with a gorgeous young intern Molly Stearn (Evan Rachael Wood), leading her to confide in Meyers a secret that could bring his dreams crashing down around him. As the story presses on and Meyers faces wave after wave of adversity, his eager and idealistic mindset erodes to expose a dark, amoral core which is hellbent on his own success. Herein lies the most important question the film poses to its audience: is it possible for a politician to emerge victorious from a campaign without compromising their original ideals and beliefs?

The all-star cast, which also includes Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright, displays that the strength of the film is in the acting, with Gosling leading the charge with another stunning performance. And while corruption, blackmailing, and extortion in the world of politics are by no means revolutionary viewpoints, The Ides of March still does a fantastic job portraying how the immense pressure of a political campaign can expose people for who they really are.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Ryan Gosling's character is known only as, "The Driver," which is fitting, because that's all he does. Whether it is earning a living as a Hollywood stuntman or moonlighting as a getaway driver for hire, he does one thing and he does it extremely well. The Driver stirs up memories of Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name. To the audience, he has no past, no family, and no emotions, or so we think.

The film is set in Los Angeles, although with the opening credits and the soundtrack, it feels like we are watching an old rerun of Miami Vice. Driver lives next door to Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). When The Driver is introduced to his neighbors, we begin to see a glimmer of emotion and an eventually motivator for the rest of the storyline. A week later, Irene's husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison and finds his wife and son warmed up to this quiet stranger. However, instead of succumbing to jealously, Standard senses that The Driver is a professional and comes to him with a need for a wheelman. The ensuing heist puts both Irene and Benicio in danger, leading The Driver to reveal his deep-seeded emotions and loyalties.

Drive, is teeming with influence from classic film noir pieces. The anticipation and tenseness that the audience experiences comes from the fact the emotions and feelings aren't out in the open, but rather hidden in the shadows. The Driver embodies these noir traits, only to have them amplified by the juxtaposition of the characters surrounding him, who bring backgrounds into the story. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman play influential men in the world of organized crime in Los Angeles and steal the show every time they set foot in a scene. Bryan Cranston also helps to bring life to the world of The Driver, as his mentor in the world of automobiles.

On the surface, Drive may seem like another film along the vein of The Fast and the Furious: another action movie jam packed with car chases and predictable story lines. But this film places emphasis on writing, dialogue, and storytelling, leading us to care not only about the enigmatic protagonist, but also about the reason and outcome of the car chases. We aren't content to sit back and be overwhelmed by special effects and CGI. Instead, we hang on the edge of our seats, following the hero through his exploits and waiting for him to ride, or rather drive, off into the sunset.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fighter

Audiences want nothing more than to identify with the protagonist of a film. But when Mickey Ward gets ignored by his mother, girlfriend, older half-brother, and seven-loudmouthed sisters, the viewer simply follows suit and does the same.

David O. Russell's The Fighter tells the true story of boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who spends his entire career in the shadow of his older brother Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale), the proclaimed "pride of Lowell, Massachusetts." The height of Eklund's career came from a 10 round bout in which he knocked over Sugar Ray Leonard. However, Dickie fell hard and became addicted to crack to become the character in this story: a failed version of what Mickey hopes to become.

Mickey is subjected to a series of bad losses, thanks in part to the "management" of both his brother and mother (Melissa Leo), who see Mickey fighting as a way to supply cash for the family while Dickie bides his time for his supposed comeback. Then Mickey falls for a sexy and tough bartender by the name of Charlene (Amy Adams). This new girlfriend helps to be the voice of the audience, yelling at Mickey to shed the unneeded baggage that is brought on by his current entourage.

The story may be about the fighting career of Mickey Ward, but that certainly doesn't seem that Mickey is the one making the decisions. When he goes into an obviously mismatched bout, his family persuades him to follow through despite the inevitable defeat. When Mickey receives the opportunity to train in Las Vegas professionally, Charlene all but forces him to take the offer. Even when the film reaches the inevitable showdown of Girlfriend v. Family, Mickey simply says, "I'll go with both," because it pleases everybody. Mickey Ward allows himself to be pushed into decisions by those around him and because of that, it is hard to take him seriously.

The real shining light of the film is from the supporting cast, which is evident from the Oscar nominations received by this ensemble. Christian Bale, who has been bolstering his résumé with characters like Batman and John Conner, underwent the transformation of a career. His portrayal of the crack-addled Dickie was perfect and is Oscar-worthy. Both Leo and Adams locked in stellar performances as well, representing the two sides of Mickey's feelings and straining to help give a one-dimensional character a little more depth.

The fight scenes were filmed from the view of a spectator, ringside and at home on television. However, since it is Mickey's career that the film revolves around, the viewer will find it hard to become drawn into the fights since there is no emotional involvement with the fighter himself. Of course, there is the expectation of Mickey to win. But without the connection to the fighter that feeling of exaltation that should be there is replaced with nothing more than a banal ending to the movie.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Black Swan

Black Swan is not your typical dance movie. The audience in not presented with the beauty and grace of a ballerina as she performs on stage. Instead, director Darren Aronofsky thrusts the viewer into the tormented psychosis of the dancer as she loses herself, and her mind, as she transforms into her character.

To understand the storyline of Black Swan, it is imperative to be familiar with the classic Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake. The premise is simple enough; a beautiful girl is transformed into a swan and only true love's kiss will set her free. But her lustful and jealous sister, the Black Swan, swoops in and seduces the prince who would have broken the spell for the White Swan. The White Swan, seized with grief, tragically ends her own life and ultimately finds freedom in her death.

The plot for Black Swan parallels that of the classic ballet. Beautiful Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has been selected as the new prima ballerina for her company after the incumbant Beth (Winona Ryder) had been gracefully forced out due to age. Nina is regarded as the most technically sound dancer within the company and is regarded as the perfect dancer to represent the White Swan. But the company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) needs the lead to play both the White and the Black Swans. Nina simply dances with precision, not emotion, and needs to lose herself in order to portray the Black Swan. This proves easier said than done, thanks to the tumultuous relationship between Nina and her mother (Barbara Hershey). A former dancer herself, Ms. Sayers shielded her daughter from every distraction in order to essentially create a perfect ballerina.

The film is predictable, as most dance films tend to be. Tension between Nina and Thomas gives way to the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), making the threat of replacement all too real. Lily embodies everything that Nina is not, which adds to the imminent crisis building inside the head of the White Swan. The rivalry between the two dancers morphs into a twisted friendship of sorts, which aides Nina in abandoning the oppression laid upon her by her mother. As Lily represents the anti-Nina, their relationship opens the door for Nina to get in touch with her dark side and transform into the Black Swan.

Black Swan displays flashes of Aronofsky's previous work The Wrester, in which the main character immerses themselves in the perfection of their craft so recklessly that their lives ultimately end in ruin. As with The Wrestler, Aronofsky's over-the-shoulder, shaky camera work is able to put the audience inside a tormented psyche to truly experience what the characters are experiencing. The audience is also subjected to a dance along the line that separates reality from the subconscious so that when the film is reaching its climax, the line is so blurred that it becomes difficult to deduce what the truth is.

As with many classical ballet's, Black Swan, is summed up in a dramatic third act. The juxtaposition of dreams and reality, as well as the parallels between the film and the ballet, conclude in one dynamic whirlwind of passion. Much like the White Swan, Nina finds herself trapped within a prison, desperately fighting to free herself. Tragically, it is suggested that there is only one way to escape, one way to become free, one way to reach ultimate perfection. It would be unwise to question exactly what happens. To do so would simply blur the line between dream and reality even further.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Crazy Heart

As a movie goer, it is an extreme pleasure to witness a character that I can believe in. Someone with whom I can identify with while sharing in their experiences, both good and bad. Jeff Bridges is able to do so in Crazy Heart with his seemingly effortless portrayal of Bad Blake, an aging country music star who has long since seen his glory days pass him by. Instead of playing for thousands, he instead entertains his faithful followers by performing in bowling alleys and shabby piano bars.

Blake is an alcoholic and smokes too much. He tours around in an outdated Chevy Suburban and has been married five different times. He is every single country music cliche rolled into one, and yet Blake makes it seem that he is the source of those cliches. Bridges portrayal of Bad Blake makes us believe that these events actually happened to him. He can only sit idly by as Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), the young kid who once learned and toured with him is now making it big and when he does try to secure the love of Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his alcoholism drives a wedge between to two that neither party can overcome. Jeff Bridges has taken every country song ever written and breathed live into them to create Bad Blake.

It is only fitting, then, that the soundtrack is comprised of Jeff Bridges singing original country songs written by T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton. Bridges' voice, with it's gritty quality and subtle agony, is able to remind us of Blake's history every time he steps up to a microphone all while keeping the singer's pride intact as he performs at a bowling alley.

The preservation of pride in the midst of less-than-ideal situations is what keeps Blake from becoming too much of a cliche. Yes, bad things have happened to him, but he will never do the public a favor by letting them know that. In many ways, Bridges' performance in this movie closely resembles the performance of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler a year ago. And it's true - I haven't cared about another character like I did for Randy "The Ram" Robinson until Bad Blake came along. Both men are desperately trying to salvage their lives after making mistakes time and time again and in doing so, we are reminded that it is the character of a person, not the previous mistakes made by that person, which is so endearing.

Crazy Heart is a film about a country music singer and it flows like a 2 hour country song. There are no gimmicks, no illusions. The performances from Farrell, Gyllenhaal, and Robert Duvall, who plays Bad's longtime friend, all help to detail who Bad Blake really is, despite his flaws. And Jeff Bridges, who has already established himself as a tremendously talented actor, simply added another notch to his belt without showing any effort exerted at all. If only all actors could be so lucky.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Shutter Island

Is is no secret that Martin Scorsese is a master storyteller. One only needs to look at his directing repertoire to come to this conclusion. Such is the case with Shutter Island. Here, Scorsese teams up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio to tell the story of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels who, with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), is sent to Shutter Island, which houses a government facility for mentally unstable criminals., to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. Once on the island, events begin to unfold mysteriously and Daniels begins to believe that there is something more to this scenario than what meets the eye.

What makes this story so compelling is the element of the supernatural and the unstable psychosis. Scorsese is extremely careful in what he displays to the audience so that by the time the credits roll, he knows that the audience isn't exactly sure what to believe. The story begins simply enough, but then Teddy is informed by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) that the woman who disappeared did so as if she evaporated through the walls. Other encounters between Teddy and the inhabitants of the island lead him to believe that there a shady undercurrent to this case.

Shutter Island is portrayed with a Hitchcock-esque style of suspense. There is always the sense that something quite large is happening right under our nose and yet no one, audience and on-screen characters alike, is able to quite figure out what it is. And even when the ending is finally spelled out and a conclusion is drawn together, Scorsese still leave the door ajar for other possibilities. Along with the ever-present suspense is the film-noir style that DiCaprio evokes with his portrayal of Daniels. Yes, Dr. Cawley seems to exude mystery and menace every time he is on screen, but it is the obvious baggage that Teddy Daniels is carrying which makes him equally hard to trust. Shutter Island seems to draw out post-traumatic memories of World War II for Teddy and it all that the audience can do to determine why this is.

Scorsese and DiCaprio prove once again that this is a tandem that is not to be trifled with. Some movie goers may disapprove of the disjointed nature of the film, not to mention the way the ending will blindside viewers. And yet, this is exactly what Scorsese has in mind. While the audience members ask question after question, trying to piece together the events unfolding before them, Teddy find himself doing the exact same thing. And believe me, the ending of this film will blindside no one more than Teddy Daniels himself.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DVD REVIEWS - The Hurt Locker

Every now and then, a movie slips by me completely unnoticed. I attribute this to my location, where the local theaters would rather show Did You Hear About The Morgans? for three weeks instead of bringing in something other than another romantic comedy that deserves more screen time. I am then forced to wait for the film to hit the DVD stands before I can see it for the first time, let alone review it. So I have determined not to let the local theaters dictate which movies I can review based on what they are showing and present to you the first installment of “DVD REVIEWS.”

“War is a drug.” From the opening quote by Chris Hedges, the audience is aware that they are not attending their typical war film. Then again, the war in Iraq isn’t a typical war and in many ways, it is a war of uncertainty. U.S. soldiers experience difficulties distinguishing enemies from the rest of the civilians and for Staff Sgt. William James (in an Oscar worthy performance by Jeremy Renner), whose main objective is to diffuse bombs, it seems that everything can be a potential IED. And yet, despite the fact that his job could literally kill him as it did to his predecessor, James approaches a bomb with an unbelievable air of confidence as if he enjoys the pressure brought on by the pressure of the situation.

James’ confidence borders on cockiness and doesn’t sit well with the members of his support squad, including Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Sanborn follows the rules and procedures to a ‘T’ and he and his men are charged with protecting James as he focuses solely on diffusing the IED. Naturally, because he and his men are worried about potential enemy fire, Sanborn wants to do things by the book so that they can get in, get out, and live to see another day. Sanborn and his crew do no take kindly to James’ seemingly unnecessary risks and view his overconfidence as hazardous, not only to those around him but to James as well.

James does take risks in which the term “bold” would simply be an understatement. Walking straight into a bomb site without first examining the situation or disconnecting radio contact with Sanborn during a diffusing seem crazy as opposed to brave. And yet, he focuses so intently on the task at hand that even though he is extremely reckless, he still is able to perform his job with the precision of a heart surgeon. James is fully aware of the fact that these bombs need to be diffused and no one can do it better than he can and when he is at work, exhilaration and focus consume him and put him in a place where nothing else matters.

This juxtaposition of confidence in the face of a live IED builds an intense amount of suspense, proving that director Kathryn Bigelow knows exactly what she is doing. She makes the audience fear for the wellbeing of SSgt. James while anticipating one false move that will result in his demise. The tension created from every bomb diffusion is simply remarkable. What is amazing is the simplicity of the situation that generates such an intense reaction from the viewer. The hero is in danger and we fear for his life. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, said that a bomb under a table that explodes creates shock, whereas a bomb under a table that goes unnoticed while the people at the table play cards creates suspense. Such it the case with The Hurt Locker, only this time, the bomb is under the ground, in a car, or strapped to an innocent citizen.

The Hurt Locker
has been deemed as one the defining movies of the decade. After finally witnessing it firsthand, that statement is not too far off in its assumption. Bigelow creates a level of suspense that hasn’t been touched since the films of Hitchcock and also masterfully combines that suspense with the story of an ambiguous man who seems to believe that the only way to live his life is to risk it every single day.