Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

DAN - Woody Allen’s newest film is built around two friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson), who decide to spend a summer in Barcelona. They meet a mysterious and alluring painter named Juan (Javier Bardem) who invites them to visit his home in the countryside. Complex romances soon evolve among the characters.

I’ve seen a few of Woody Allen’s most famous movies, but I was never impressed. I was put off by the thought that he had written and directed those films for the purpose of casting himself in the role of a nerd who sleeps with beautiful women. It would push me even further away if he continued this in his old age, but he fortunately doesn’t appear in Vicky Christina Barcelona.

I enjoyed this film a bit more than I expected, but it’s not a complete victory. I suppose this is a character-driven film, though the characters’ behavior is sometimes difficult to understand. This movie might appeal to lovers of romance, as long as they aren’t offended by the loose and shallow nature of its characters.

Not much was required of the actors except for Penélope Cruz, who plays a semi-psychotic lover. The rest of the characters are fairly conventional. The presence of a narrator was distracting, as he provided insights into the characters’ minds. Narration only works if handled well, as in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Concerning fine arts, this is a beautiful film. Soulful Spanish guitar accompanies breathtaking scenery in Barcelona and Oviedo. The characters drink wine, express themselves through art, and enjoy life. A few brief scenes in New York City provide noticeable contrast.

I appreciate this film, though it hasn’t left much of a lasting impact on me. I was left wondering if the characters had learned anything through the course of the story, and I wasn’t sure if I had any personal gain.


STEVE - What starts off as a proposition to a weekend of sightseeing and a threesome, quickly develops into a well crafted film on the subject of love and happily ever after.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a terrific and engaging movie. The film is full of witty dialogue and smart characters, some of whom are logical, and others who are reckless and passionate. The film delves deep into the topic of love, and makes a beautiful exploration of the subject through the characters with their neurotic and sometimes irrational behaviors.

The plot follows two close friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson), who have decided to spend the summer in, of all places, Barcelona. It is the meeting of an attractive painter (Javier Bardem) and his proposition of a romantic weekend away…involving all of them that pushes the plot into interesting territory.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a rare and skillfully made film, which makes it such a joy to view. Though surely this isn’t the screenwriter and director’s best work in his catalogue of over forty films, it is defiantly a wonderful refreshment from a summer of mediocre blockbusters (The Dark Knight excluded).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading

DAN - Burn After Reading is a comedic pseudo-spy film from writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen. When the memoirs of a disgruntled CIA employee end up in the hands of deviously dim-witted gym workers, the situation quickly spins out of everyone’s control.

The Coen brothers earned four Oscars for last year’s No Country for Old Men, including Best Picture and Best Director. Their choice to follow such a film with a farcical comedy was interesting, but I was concerned. The Coens’ last two comedies, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, weren’t exactly up to par with their previous efforts.

Fortunately, the brothers have managed to whip up something special again.

Though the cinematography and setting (Washington, D.C.) didn’t initially thrill me, the characters and plot won me over. The cast consists of some of Hollywood’s most highly-regarded actors in less than flattering roles. John Malkovich’s short-tempered performance is a treat, and George Clooney nicely rounds out his “trilogy of idiots” with the Coen brothers.

Carter Burwell’s boisterous score stands out nicely, and it sets a tone for the film and its unduly pompous characters. In Joel Coen’s words, the music is “something important sounding but absolutely meaningless.”

For those of you who were upset with the conclusion of No Country for Old Men, this one doesn’t require quite as much soul searching. If you enjoyed Burn After Reading, I recommend Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, both from the Coens’ collection.


STEVE - Burn After Reading is by far one of the most bizarre, screwball, tragicomedy that only could originate from the uncanny minds of the Brothers Coen.

This movie is littered with big name performers like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and J.K. Simmons. All of whom give very unique, comical, and vastly different performances than you’ve seen before. Both Pitt and Clooney are hilarious, Pitt with his gum chewing, uneducated, gym instructor dialogue, and Clooney as the sex-addict, cheating buffoon. But it’s J.K. Simmons, who only appears for 5 minutes of film that brings the house down.

This film is made with expert execution and style, not to mention some terrific dialogue. But even with all of that, I found myself looking at the clock more than once, which isn’t a good thing when the film runs a total time of 96minutes. The issue lies in have to bring together so many different characters that the pacing of the film ultimately suffers.

Though it is by far one of the better ensemble casts that I’ve seen, and is quite comically screwy, Burn After Reading fails (for myself at least) to create an emotional connection with its audience. I’ll give it credit for its smart screenplay, fine cinematography, and first rate performances, but with all the scheming, affairs, and unique basement contraptions, it just didn’t hit home.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bottle Shock

DAN - In 1976 a competition was held in Paris in which obscure Californian wines were compared with the best that the French had to offer. At the time, France was producing what was considered to be the best wine in the world. This event, which came to be known as the “Judgment of Paris,” was the basis for Bottle Shock, directed by Randall Miller.

Even without seeing this movie, its ending shouldn’t be difficult to predict. The film’s tendency toward convention is its most obvious weakness. Sure, there are some unique moments here and there, but they’re all contained in a color-by-number story.

The movie takes place largely in Napa Valley, which provides some beautiful scenery. This is one of the few positives that stood out to me.

Bottle Shock suffers from a lack of character development. Friends betray one another, friendships are seemingly broken, but everything is conveniently back to normal fifteen minutes later. The cast’s performances weren’t noteworthy, though I’m sure they’d benefit from a better screenplay. Even Alan Rickman, who is usually fun to watch, didn’t have much to work with.

Little risk was taken in the making of this movie. Perhaps the producers’ only gamble was in making a film about wine fanatics. It’s not exactly blockbuster material.

At one point in the film, the characters say, “Through hardship comes enlightenment... in grapes.” If the movie’s producers had adhered to this philosophy in regard to film, they might have ended up with something more than mediocre.


STEVE - What starts off as an intriguing film of a love affair between a man and good wine slowly becomes a movie bogged down by a sour and uninteresting family relationship that kills the feeling of a good movie buzz.

Bottle Shock is one of those “based on a true story” type of movies. You know the type… the kind which is “loosely” based on a true story. And because it’s “loosely” based on a true story it allows the writer to take certain “privileges” of the plot in order to create those typical “Hollywood Movie” clichés, because that’s what “sells” these days. It’s really quite unfortunate, because Bottle Shock could have been something unique. Instead it became another typical film of the modern Hollywood cinema.

However, this film does have a strong point, that point being Alan Rickman. Bottle Shock truly works best when focusing on the character and story of Alan Rickman’s Steven Spurrier. Spurrier is a British wine lover who owns a little shop in France called “The Academy of Wine.” The year is 1976, and it’s his idea to host a wine tasting contest between the two countries of France and America (this is the true story part). Rickman gives a wonderful performance as the snobby connoisseur of wine. His character and performance is so enjoyable that whenever he walks on screen you are simply unable to pull your eyes away. Unfortunately, every moment he’s not on screen, the film becomes a boor.

The movie is filled to the brim with mediocre plot, acting, and everything else. And it’s only because of Alan Rickman and his character’s storyline that I give this film a pass. Ironically enough, the movie works best when it focuses on the true events of the story, and not dealing with the “loosely based” characters and their family issues.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Pineapple Express

DAN - Pineapple Express, directed by relatively unknown David Gordon Green, is a stoner comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. One of the characters witnesses a murder, and the pair of potheads are forced to run from hitmen and cops alike.

I’ll preface this review by saying that I didn’t get much sleep the night before watching the movie, and I found it difficult to stay awake through the second half. But I persevered for the sake of providing well-informed opinions for our readers, who will settle for nothing less.

This movie is odd. It wanders through comedic takes on various genres, most notably action and adventure. There are drug lords, assassins, and moments of violence that surpass Grand Theft Auto in over-the-top offbeat gore. It’s as if Cheech and Chong wandered into a poor-man’s combination of The Fugitive and Kill Bill.

I’ve noticed that I’m becoming increasingly tired of comedies like this that use improvised dialogue. It’s too obvious, and it bumps me out of the film. The man behind this trend is Judd Apatow, who produced similarly-styled films like Step Brothers, Superbad, Knocked Up, and Anchorman.

Having said that, there were a number of good scenes. Danny McBride, who is on his way to becoming a big name in comedy, provided some of the best moments in this movie.

I’m sure Pineapple Express was meant to be viewed while on the reefer, because even though it’s a comedy, I didn’t laugh enough. Maybe I just need to loosen up. If only there were some sort of inhalable substance that would keep me laid back... legally, of course.


- In late 2007, the Hollywood Insider came out with a list. This list ranked, in their opinion, the fifty smartest people in Hollywood. Conditions for such a list ranged from rules such as not only making smart films and movie decisions in the past, but to making smart movies now, while in the process, pushing the industry forward in a new and unique way. At the top of this great list, which contained legendary filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and celebrated actors such as Meryl Streep and Will Smith, was none other than Producer/Director Judd Apatow. The reason he topped such a list? Well, to put it simply… smart and very funny movie making.

Mr. Apatow has brought us such classics as Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Knocked Up, Superbad, and my most recent favorite Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Hit after hit, Judd Apatow has produced (and sometimes directed) many of our modern day comedy classics. After all, how many times did you or your friends find yourself confessing love for a lamp after seeing Anchorman for the umpteenth time?

So maybe now you can see why Judd Apatow is deserving of such a spot as the smartest man in Hollywood, and maybe why I was excited to see his latest produced comedy, Pineapple Express. So it burdens me with a heavy heart to reveal my sincere disappointment in what I was hoping to be a good movie.

Star and writer Seth Rogen (whom had impressed me once before with his witty and hilarious script in Superbad) failed not only to impress me as an actor, but also as a screenwriter. Rogen’s acting skills never impressed me to begin with, even though sometimes, when in the right role, the man can charm the pants right off of ya (not here however). It was nevertheless, his script’s dialogue, which in many scenes felt improvised and awkward, that caused this film to feel disjointed and uneven. And perhaps that was the issue; they should have stuck to the script instead of improvising. However, the larger offense done to the audience in this movie was its exposition.

In a horrible attempt to push the movie along it’s merry and at many times jarring plot, was some of the most ridiculous and unbelievable explanations and exploitations of plot and unlikely circumstances. True, this movie is in many regards what some would call a “pot-smoking movie” being that it contains much smoking of pot and or weed as it is sometimes referred to in many intellectual circles. And true, the movie was aimed at those certain intellectual circles that smoked said weed. Nonetheless, such horrible writing and execution of plot is truly unforgivable. And this here is where the problem lies.

Director David Gordon Green, whose previous experience was on serious independent drama up until this point, failed in many ways to form a cohesive and smart film. He should have called a halt to the improvising, which was truly out of hand in this movie, and made a more conscious effort to bring the film under the reigns of some of intelligence and coherent thought.

Now true, this was a “pot-smoking movie”, and yes it did and was meant to stretch the bounds of believability… which I’m all for. But you can’t force feed me a poorly constructed vehicle to drive the plot and expect me to get into that vehicle and ride in it to the end of the movie. It doesn’t work! Just like I’m sure my use of literary terms didn’t just work, or maybe it did. I don’t know… I go to Malone.

To be quiet honest, I think the real issue for me was that this movie had an important missing element… that wonderful, good feeling, Judd Apatow comedy charm. This movie had no charm. I didn’t fall in love with the characters, I didn’t route for the underdog, and my emotions weren’t carried away in the story. I was stuck in a theater… and I had gum on my shoe.