Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Descent

This is another movie I was very excited about seeing. As has been established, I am a big horror fan, and this was supposed to be one of the scariest movies from 2006. I had the movie for a week before I finally got around to watching it. I was waiting for the perfect opportunity- late at night, in the dark, alone, not too tired, etc. I must say, however, that I was thoroughly disappointed. This movie has a fairly large fan base, and I can understand why. It follows traditional horror telling techniques of dark and uncertainty, and it does do a good job of this. I am by no means calling it a horrible movie. I was just expecting a lot more.

Most importantly, I did not find it all that scary. The movie is simple enough. A group of women go spelunking, and find themselves trapped underground with unknown blood thirsty creatures. Follow? I hope so. The movie starts out with a feeble attempt at character establishment, a year or so before the main story takes place. The mere fact that they attempted this already puts the Descent above many horror movies (i.e. Feast, which I reviewed a few days ago). This development is just sloppy and unconvincing. Finally the group indeed descends into the Earth, and this is where it starts to get scary. The scenes early on underground are the best in the movie. The women are forced to make their way through tiny spaces, find themselves trapped. This is before the creatures ever make an appearance, and the idea of being trapped underground is far more terrifying than the rest of the movie. So much could have been done to explore the psychological stresses this would cause, but these ideas are only briefly touched on.

It's not long before the creatures show up, and the whole movie goes downhill. All the great ideas early on fall by the way-side, and it just becomes a monster movie, picking off victims one by one. There is an attempt at creating tension between the characters as they start to lose their mind and turn on each other, but these scenes (largely portrayed during flashbacks and hallucinations) are muddled and confusing.

Neil Marshall proves himself as a competent director in his first major release. He builds a convincingly creepy atmosphere, with a very small budget (on the commentary he talks about how much they reused the same sets and used different lighting, etc to create vastly different locations). It's ingenuity like that which gives me faith in the up and coming film makers of the horror genre.

This movie has a great premise, and a few genuinely scary scenes. Unfortunately it could not buck convention and provide something new. Marshall has potential, and this was not a terrible movie to introduce yourself with. I anticipate good scary movies from him.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Children of Men

I've been thinking about this movie during the few days since I saw it, and I'm glad I've had this time to mull it over. It's not at all what I was expecting when going into it, but that's not necessarily bad. The film takes place in the near future where infertility has afflicted all women all over the world. The last birth on Earth had occurred eighteen years prior. In that time, the world had descended into chaos, with major societies falling into anarchy. The story follows Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, as he unwillingly becomes the protector of a woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who has miraculously become pregnant. The plot revolves around the two of them, and various groups of people who want to use her for their own personal gains.

This is a very thick movie. There is a lot of plot, a lot of characters, and even more messages. It works on most of these levels. If you go into this movie looking for action, you will not be disappointed. It is very exciting, and is paced perfectly, to heighten tension when wanted, and release the tension when needed. Beneath this, however, there are a number of subtexts. The most interesting (which I feel was under-addressed) was the idea of a global pandemic of infertility. I was disappointed that they never discuss what could have caused this, or how Kee somehow got pregnant. It seemed that this concept was only used as fuel for the other messages and wasn't explored on its own merit.

Other, more prominent messages included those of global tolerance. In this world, which takes place in Great Britain, all immigrants are criminals. This results in internment camps, and torture. On the reverse side, it also leads to terrorist organizations, one of which is interested in Kee. This leads into another message of exploiting people for political ideas. Is it appropriate to sacrifice individuals for a greater cause? These ideas are played with for the majority of the movie.

Owen does a fine job, but the real star is Ashitey. The two of them undergo some of the most realistic character changes throughout the movie. The dynamic the two of them have is honestly remarkable. Michael Cain and Julianne Moore have small roles, but they seem to thrive as a supporting cast.

Alfonso Cuaron deserved a best director nomination. Not only that, he deserves to win it. Clearly the best director nominees are stacked to try to ensure a win for Martin Scorsese. I can overlook this Cuaron's absence only because I desperately want to see Scorsese win one. Instead Children of Men got three nominations- one for the script, editing, and cinematography. Without a doubt, it deserves the editing win, if only as a sideways win for the directing. Cuaron is incredibly inventive. He has three separate shots of the course of the movie that top five minutes each. And these are very complicated shots. One involves a lengthy car conversation and chase that required one of the most inventive camera rigs I have ever seen. For an interesting behind the scenes look at that shot, go here. Be warned, however, that it contains spoilers. Another shot, which clocks in at nine minutes, involves dozens of extras, explosions, a wide area of movement, and heavy equipment. It took the crew twelve days to set up the shot, and a whole day to run through it three times. Cuaron is one of the best directors out there today.

In hindsight, I'm not exactly sure what I expected from the movie. I was intrigued with the infertility premise, and was expecting a deep exploration of what that world would be like. They did explore that world, but not in the direction that I was expecting. I did enjoy the movie, though, very much. Towards the end, it features one of the most powerful scenes I have seen in a long time. I just wish it had been a little more exploratory in its message, and not so political. I still loved it none-the-less. For another review of the movie, check out the Fighting Librarian link to the left.


Sunday, January 28, 2007


This movie is bad...really bad. But it's also fun...kinda. The premise is simple enough. The plot follows a dozen or so misfits trapped in bar at night with blood thirsty creatures outside. It's sort of a comedic cross between Alien and Tremors. Unfortunately the sly humor isn't enough to save the movie.

I have been waiting for this movie for two years now. I first heard about it during my addiction to the "Project Greenlight" series, a competition with script writers and directors. The winning director gets to produce the winning script, and the show follows the whole production process. The series was absolutely fantastic. It's a shame none of the movies they produced were that memorable (in addition to Feast there was The Battle of Shaker Heights, and Stolen Summer). The movie was put on the table for a while because of the departure of the Weinstein brothers from Miramax/Dimension. After some debate, they took Feast with them and released it on video. Unfortunately, it wasn't so much worth the wait.

The directing is very tongue in cheek, with winning director John Gulager winking at the audience the entire time. This starts from the very beginning as the characters are introduced along with their "life expectancy." This movie knows that it's a horror movie, knows that it's bad, and has fun with it. In a way I respect a movie that's just out there to entertain. Too bad it wasn't more entertaining.

The strongest aspect of Feast is actually the cast. Surprisingly they were very good. The ensemble is filled out by an eclectic mix of characters who are there solely to provide tasty tidbits for the monsters. Despite the limited depth to the characters, they are played very well. The cast features relative unknowns including Gulager's wife and father (he wanted to cast more family and friends, but the producers put the ca bosh on that). Henry Rollins is cast in a very anti-Henry Rollins role- a motivational speaker. This is just an example of some of the subtle humor at play here.

This movie essentially functions as a medium for blood. I love horror movies, and at heart, I am a gore hound. I did get a kick out of this movie and it's cheesy effects. There is little to no digital effects, so everything was done using traditional on set effects. This means lots and lots of blood.

Perhaps I enjoyed this movie more knowing what happened during the making. The DVD features some nice "making of" vignettes, but I strongly recommend getting your hands on the Project Greenlight series. It was interesting seeing the product of that endeavour. Unfortunately, despite the humor, and me getting my jollies from those gruesome effects, this movie is just not good.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Oscar Nominees Announced

It's that time of the year again. Oscar season. The nominees were announced today, and is gets closer to the air date (February 25th) I'll be weighing in with my oppinions. Every week I'll have another Oscar related poll up. To see the entire list of the nominees go here

Jesus Camp

This is inherently difficult to review. Like any controversial documentary, if you agree with it, you love it, and if you don't, you hate it. I'll come right out at the beginning and say that I agree with it.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were at the helm for this movie. They are the duo responsible for 2005's amazing documentary "The Boys of Baraka". For this outting their target is the Evangelical religious groups in America. The vast majority focuses on a religious camp run by Becky Fischer. She is fanatical about her religious passion, which is shown not only during her preaching, but also by the exhaustion she clearly suffers running this camp. The film also focuses on several youngsters who attend this camp, and who are as equally fanatical as she is. First is Levi, a devoted pre-teen who is actually a skilled orator practiced in preaching. If he is this impressive at this age, he could be very powerful when he gets older. Also featured is Tori, a little younger than Levi and extremely active. Many scenes involve her literally bouncing around the screen, her mouth running a mile a minute- just as a child her age should be acting. This normality ends, however, when she goes up to strangers on the street and tries to talk to them about Jesus.

Some of the scenes in this movie are very funny. but many are downright scary. There are clips of Fischer ranting to these children about how they are hypocrites and liars if they don't live their lives like the church says, and even how Harry Potter would have been put to death in the Bible. This kind of oratory scares me now, even on screen. I can't imagine how it would have affected me in person if I were 10 or 11. Perhaps most frightening of all where the scenes with a sea of children speaking in tongues, and following chants led by Fischer screaming, "This is war."

The movie could have left it alone with this case study, and it could be passed off as an isolated scenario. It goes on, however, to show meetings where these children are taught to praise president Bush because he "brings credibility to Christianity." Towards the end of the movie, preacher Ted Haggard says that the church has the power to decide any election. This may certainly have some validity to it. In the closing scenes a group from Fischer's camp, including Levi and Tori, go to Washington DC and start a Pro-Life rally. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem arises when it's these children marching who probably don't fully understand the issues. I was surprised in one scene when Levi said that he was born again at age 5. He claimed that he had felt there was more out there for him, and he found that in Christianity. In my own personal editorializing of this, that's a wee bit early to making these conclusive decisions.

The strongest aspect of this movie for me, is that despite its obvious agenda, it never comes out and states it. There is only one person interviewed in the film that disagrees with Evangelicals. This is Mike Papantonio, a radio commentator, and a religious man himself. Other than him, all that is shown is footage and interviews with the subjects of the camp. This is a powerful method, and incredibly hard to pull off. Essentially, these people simply showing what it is they do, is supposed to seem so outrageous as to alienate the audience without any commentary even needed. Ewing and Grady pull this off.

Despite how powerful this movie was, there was quite a bit of repetition. Shot after shot of the children praying, and crying grew a little tiresome. It's clear these were including to beef up the length, as it has a scant hour and twenty five minute running time. Also, much like this review, it jumped around quite a bit. It seemed to be mostly in chronological order, but there were many other scenes scattered throughout with no clear time frame. This is most likely due to the lack of a narrator to tie everything together.

On a whole I found this movie very powerful. In the theater there was alternating laughter and audible gasps of shock. I saw this in a rather liberal town, so that reaction did not catch me by surprise. Basically it boils down to your feelings on this issue. Like any movie of this type "Fahrenheit 9/11", "Outfoxed", etc, if you agree, you like it, if you disagree, you don't. I agreed, and I liked it.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Fountain

This review could easily be summed up in one word- wow. But I don't think that would be journalistic for a film review column. I saw this movie back in November with my cohort, Rand, whom I may mention frequently as he sees about 90% of my movies with me. This was a movie that not only blew both of us away visually, but also kept us discussing it for quite some time afterwards (He then went out and bought the graphic novel that was based on it).

This movie was a struggle to make. It was originally planned for production in 2002, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles. Pitt left the project due to differences with the script, and with him, the budget fell from $75 million to $35 million. In some regards this is perfectly fine, because the two who replaced them, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weiz, were phenomenal. Darren Aronofsky, the genius behind Pi and Requiem for a Dream again wanted to utilize alternate effects. Instead of using Computer Generated Images for many of the effects shots, he used micro-photography, filming chemical reactions in a petri dish. He said the this would make the movie feel more "organic".

The new cast and the alternate techniques worked wonderfully. The acting is perfect, and it's visually stunning. I don't want to give too much away, but the story is essentially about the search for the fountain of life- over three very distant time periods spanning thousands of years. These three parallel stories are presented in a non-linear fashion, something that seems to be appearing in more and more movies Each story is compelling, and they all tie in together, even more deeply than you think during the entire duration of the movie. I'm not going to lie, there are parts of it that I am still unsure of, and that may be how we're supposed to feel afterwards. I appreciate movies that enable people to have differing, equally valid interpretations.

This movie is science fiction, but it's so much more than that. The science and the fantasy aspects play second fiddle to the relationships between Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weiz, and they work so well together. This movie is powerful as well as intriguing, something hard to pull off. The sci-fi twist adds to the plot, but doesn't overwhelm it. The human aspect is still the focus of the story.

On a side note, I also recommend the graphic novel. When the project was shelved, Aronofsky wanted the story told anyway he could, so he got comic book artist Kent Williams to adapt it. This came out in 2005, so it actually predates the movie. Though it follows the same themes and basic plot of the movie, it is actually significantly varied, because Aronofsky gave Williams free reign to interpret it as he saw fit.

It's obvious I am a big fan of Darren Aronofsky. I loved Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and even liked the sci-fi horror movie, Below, which he penned but did not direct. So my opinion may be slightly biased. The Fountain was the movie I looked forward to more than any other this year. and it did not disappoint me. This is certainly not a popcorn movie. If you've not in the right mood for it, you may not enjoy it. If you want something to talk about and move you, however, this is perfect. This is my pick for the best movie of 2006.


Friday, January 19, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

This movie was good..... but I say that with hesitation. I went in with very high expectations, perhaps too high to actually be met. The movie tells the story of Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), the president of Uganda from his takeover in 1971, through his being deposed in 1979. It is told through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvory. Garrigan is a fictional person based very loosely on Bob Astins, one of Amin's advisers. In the movie, Garrigan travels to Uganda directly out of medical school and begins working at a missionary treating villagers. Through a series of chance incidents, he becomes very close with Amin, and is offered the position as his personal Physician. Before long, Garrigan becomes his closest advisor. He struggles with his involvement with the dictator on his decline into paranoia and insanity.

I am not very knowledgeable about Amin or his story, so I cannot very well attest to the historical accuracy of the movie. This isn't an Idi Amin biopic, however, it's based on a novel of the same name by Giles Foden. It is more the story of Garrigan than of Amin himself. I liked this aspect of it, even though the advertising campaign clearly shows Amin as the main character. Garrigan is not a likable person from the beginning, but he is a compelling one. He is caught up with the lavish lifestyle that is given to him under Amin, and refuses to believe the stories of the atrocities that he hears. Underneath all this, however, he does have a desire to do good.

Forest Whitaker won the Golden Globe for his role, and even though I'm not sure he really was the best of the year, he was very good. From when he is first introduced, you can see the depth that he brings to the character. In some scenes he is amazingly charming, and in others he is utterly terrifying. Even during his clownish antics, you can still see insanity lurking just beneath his giant grin. McAvory also did well, through he wasn't quite as convincing in his struggle with the two conflicting desires, and some of his scenes came across as slightly overdone.

It was directed by Kevin MacDonald, his first major motion picture, though he has made several documentaries including "Touching the Void" and "Being Mick". For his first time out he does a good job. He takes what could have been an explosive action movie, and manages to keep it at a personal level, focusing on the characters over the events. The camera work is reminiscent of another similarly themed move, "The Constant Gardener", which I thought was actually a much better film. Both feature mostly handheld shots, rapid zooms and pans, as well as erratic editing. The last point tended to get annoying after a while, and even a little confusing, including several abrupt cuts that left me wondering what had happened.

For the most part I have given this a positive review, so why my hesitation in calling it good? There are a few points that brought it down for me. First, there was some gratuitous sex. I don't feel that this is a problem, except when it is unnecessary, and some of the scenes in this movie were certainly not needed. Finally, MacDonald, despite his staying faithful to his focus on the characters through most of the movie, strayed towards end, bringing in some intense and not needed violence. Now, I know this man killed 300,000 Ugandans, but that was conveyed very well in the movie without showing it. At the end, however, there was a scene that looked straight out of "Saw" or "Hostel" that I had a little trouble watching (and my favorite genre is horror).

This movie was very close to being fantastic. The acting was good, the directing for the most part was good, and the soundtrack was actually superb. It just strayed a little too much from what the aim of the movie was. It featured some very unnecessary scenes- too many to be overlooked.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Today's film unfortunately had Little to no theater distribution. This is simply because like the name suggests, it was not rated. This has an added bit of irony, because the premise of this movie is about the MPAA and ratings system. For his second film, Kirby Dick dabbles in the documentary genre with mixed results. The movie was very interesting, and it opened up a world that has previously remained very secret, but as a movie- it was mediocre at best.

The movie is split into two unique sections. One was interviews with various film-makers who have over the course of their careers received an NC-17 rating. This means that no person under the age of 17 is admitted- and also means very few theaters will show it, and very few studios will actually release it. In most cases, an NC-17 rating means the death of a movie- unless it is re-cut to meet the standards.

In the other section Dick hired two private investigators to track down who the members of the MPAA are. This provided a lot of fun and humor for the movie- as well as most of the discernible plot- but during all of this I couldn't help but think that it was like a couple of little kids spying on their parents. I remember this very well from my elementary school days.

Despite the amateur film-making, some important things were actually revealed. The members of the ratings board were uncovered, and two former members came forward to speak against the system. A direct tie between the major movie studios and the board was also discovered. This results in a massive influence from the studios on the ratings system, while smaller independent films (the ones that more often than not receive the NC-17 ratings) are left out in the cold.

Towards the end of the movie there is a very memorable section in which Dick himself submits this very movie to the MPAA and of course- receives an NC-17. He then proceeds to fight it, and at the end does a brief bit on the appeals board. Obviously he did not win that appeal- as it's still unrated.
This is not a great film, but it is an important one- and one that should be seen. It blows the lid off this secret yet voluntary organization known as the MPAA. It reveals the absurdity of how much more taboo sex and language is than violence, and it shows just how much power major movie studios have. I was fortunate enough that our local theater ran it for a weekend, but for most people you only have a month or so to wait- it comes out on DVD next month.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Golden Globes

Well, the Golden Globes have come and passed, rendering my poll obsolete. We'll just pretend that it says "should have won" instead of "should win." I ashamed to say that I have yet to see most of the movies that were nominated for anything. I only saw two out the eight best picture nominees. This is continuing my tradition of not seeing award winners until at least a year after. For example, over the last couple of months I finally got around to seeing Capote, Brokeback mountain, and Crash. So, I'm just posting a link to the winners, and I'll let you all weigh in on them.

Winners and Nominees

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Good Shepherd

I just got home a little bit ago from seeing this film. There are a few things to know before going into it. This movie closes in on 3 hours in length, is utterly sadening, and is fantastic. The Good Shepherd slipped into theaters at the very end of 2006, and is easily one of the best movies from that year. The plot is intriguing (if awfully confusing at some points, even after the movie is over), and the cast is spot on.

Matt Damon has truly flourished this year, with this movie following shortly after his stellar performance in the Departed. Throughout this entire movie he exudes a sense of sadness, but stoic acceptance of what he does. The rest of the cast gives brilliant performances as well. Alec Baldwin, Robert Deniro, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, and others create the impression that they genuinely are these characters, not the actors playing them. Even Angelina Jolie gives the best performance I have ever seen from her.

The plot follows Edward Bell Wilson (Damon), based loosely on James Jesus Angelton- the founder of the CIA's Counterintelligence operations. His story is presented in a non-linear fashion from his college days through his work in intelligence during World War II, up through the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He struggles between his family and work, and finding those that he can trust- including himself. Some of the most powerfull scenes are not within the confines of the CIA, but between him and his wife and son. This movie invokes sympathy for even this fairly unlikeable character.

Robert Deniro's directing seem directly influenced by one of the movie's producers- Francis Ford Coppola. The dense plot and depth of characters is reminiscent of The Godfather movies. The only flaws in this movie have to deal with pacing. Some parts are drawn out a little too long, and there are scenes that seem a little unnecessary. A small appearance by Joe Pesci is unfortunately one of those scenes. Despite the slow pacing, it felt no longer than two hours.

I was very happy to have this review as my first one. It was one of the best movies I have seen in quite some time. Be warned, however, that you have to be in the mood to see a slightly depressing, and completely twisting movie to enjoy this. And you have to be prepared to sit there, for a long time.



For some time, I have been thinking about creating a blog to review movies. The exact format of these reviews is still uncertain, but I'm sure it will evolve as I go along. One of my goals here is not to simply review new movies, but go back and review older movies that you might have missed- a sort of recommendation for older movies. I hope you enjoy it, and I appreciate any comments as this goes along- maybe this will even spark conversations and arguments. I hope so.