Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett’s first film, a UCLA student film, is one of the most ambitious and culturally important movies of the last thirty plus years.  Killer of Sheep take the Italian Neo-Realist style and places it in the setting of 1970s inner city Los Angeles.  The film’s comments on race, poverty, and the ultimate social struggles of the people depicted in the film are timeless and it is a striking début picture in the way it deftly handles those ideas in interesting, artful ways.

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

John Cassavetes spare, startling take on the film noir, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is clunky and feels almost improvisational at times but what makes it stand out is the brilliant performance by Ben Gazzara.  As with most Cassavetes films, the filmmaker gives no room for the actor to hide, often getting in too close for comfort and giving the audience a sense of intimacy with its lead characters that’s difficult to pull off but Cassavetes style paired with a heartbreaking performance of a proud man laid low by Gazzara reaches new levels of audience participation with its lead character.

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21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum relive their high school days in the remake of the television show 21 Jump Street.  Filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller surprise in a big way, taking this remake of an outdated television show from the 1980’s and properly updating it to modern times, telling a hilarious, lewd story about not just our regrets about our high school days but about the ways we have changed and the way today’s teenagers are quickly changing with the times.

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Haywire

Haywire

Steven Soderbergh refuses to shoot action in the conventional way with his latest, Haywire.  In fact, nothing about the movie is inherently conventional.  As with The Girlfriend Experience, taking an actress not known for her acting talents, Soderbergh morphs and shapes the film to the lead’s inherent talents.  With The Girlfriend Experience, the filmmaker took the inherent seduction and sexuality of Sasha Grey’s porn star past and formed it into a narrative about a high-class escort, pushing the bounds of intimacy.  Haywire’s lead, MMA fighter Gina Carano, is a purely physical being in every way, shape, and form.  Beyond just her sensual beauty, every move the actress conveys throughout the film conveys a brutality and a sense of violence that belies that sexual exterior.  There is no doubt throughout the film that she can kick anybody’s ass.

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John Carter

John Carter

Let’s just get this out of the way, first and foremost.  John Carter is an awful title.  Dull and meaningless, if you just heard the title you might think it was a sequel to the Samuel L. Jackson basketball movie Coach Carter.  It tells you nothing about the fantasy and wonder contained in the film or represents how thrilling and exciting a good deal of the film actually is.  None of the pulp action, thrills, and romance translate through such a watered down, meaningless title.  John Carter of Mars would have only been slightly better but it at least tells you the movie you’re about to sit with.

Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, filmmaker Andrew Stanton has crafted a loving tribute to the writer and his work and the type of adventure stories that Burroughs relished telling.  The film moves at a quick pace and never feels bogged down in its overly convoluted and messy story.  Stanton’s love for the material shines through with exquisite character and set designs and beautifully crafted action scenes that make sense and are fun to watch, two aspects that are becoming increasingly hard to come by in today’s action filmmaking.

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Game Change

Game Change

Director Jay Roach and screenwriter Danny Strong have taken a small slice of the wide-ranging book about the 2008 election by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann and made a film that is both, at times, contentious and empathetic and treats its characters with a surprisingly sympathetic touch.  Politics is an ugly game and Game Change is about how that ugliness affects everything it touches from the people who set out to do good or with at least some ideals and how that destroys everything decent around it.  While there has been controversy surrounding how the film cuts out the ugliness of the Democratic primaries and other salacious details on that side of the election and almost wholly concentrates on the ascent of vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the film on its own seems surprisingly fair despite the obvious liberal leanings of the filmmakers.

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Chronicle

Chronicle

Josh Trank’s Chronicle has an intriguing premise in taking the superhero genre and transferring it to the Youtube generation.   Trank’s film takes the, well-worn at this point, found footage gimmick, and forms something both familiar and yet, completely unique at the same time.  The built up teen angst that provides subtext for most comic book superheroes provides the spine of the film as we meet Andrew (Dane DeHaan), an inward, lonely teenager who decides to film everything around him.  Along with his sensitive, faux philosophizing jock cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and popular class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan), they find a mysterious object that inexplicably gifts all three with telekinetic abilities and superpowers.  The rest of the film follows the young teenagers as they use their powers in all the ways that you would expect young teens to use them as they get frighteningly stronger and more powerful.

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Wanderlust

Wanderlust

Wet Hot American Summer is an undisputed modern comedy classic.  It’s absurdist take on a well-worn genre was energetic and chaotic with a now all-star cast of comedic geniuses just playing in an open field ripe for comedy.  Director David Wain’s debut feature film has only grown in stature since, even as he’s moved on to more seemingly mainstream work.  His last film Role Models was an actual mainstream hit, as opposed to Wet Hot American Summer’s cult status, but still retained that chaotic, messy charm that made that earlier film so indelible.  With his latest, Wanderlust, Wain re-teams with many of his former cast-mates from The State as well as a few stand-out new faces such as Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux.

Paul Rudd and Aniston play a yuppie couple forced to leave New York City after Rudd’s character is laid off.  After suffering the indignities of living under his brother’s roof (the wonderful Ken Marino), the couple take shelter in Elysium Bed & Breakfast, a hippie commune founded by a doddering old man my the name of Carvin (Alan Alda) and lead by the enigmatic Seth (Theroux).

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L.A. Confidential

LA Confidential

Curtis Hanson’s seminal crime epic L.A. Confidential is a master class in telling a story economically and entertainingly as well.  Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s adaptation turns James Ellroy’s monster of a novel into a clean, well told story that never feels like its leaving anything out to better fit an under three-hour picture.  In effect, there is not a wasted frame or line of dialogue throughout the film as each piece fits together seamlessly building to a thrilling gun battle at a rundown motel.

Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce lead an all-star cast as three very different detectives drawn into a web of conspiracy and murder when one of their own is killed in a sleazy diner.  Prostitution, drugs, and corruption are the name of the game in the seedy world of 1950’s Los Angeles.   To get into the story would take up far too much time but needless to say, like all the great noirs, the story takes numerous twists and turns and a lesser filmmaker would have made a confusing mess of it.  But Hanson handles the material deftly, guiding the viewer and its main protagonists through a labyrinthine story that can be hard to process on the page but crackles off the screen.

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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck and filmmaker John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is, surprisingly, a deeply political film and timeless in all its own ways.  Ostensibly about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and one family’s journey to California looking for work and, in a sense, hope for their future, the film also tackles heady ideas about community and the government’s role in taking care of the downtrodden when there’s no one else there.  Accused of Communism and the like in its day, the film’s themes revolving around people who society just doesn’t have room for anymore are just as vital and important today as they were when John Ford originally set out to film Steinbeck’s novel.

Henry Fonda top-lines a stellar cast as Tom Joad, a man just released from prison returning home to his family’s farm in Oklahoma, only to find it abandoned and his family ready to move on for work and the promise of a better future in California.  Loaded up in a rusty old jalopy, Tom, his parents, grandparents, uncle, brothers, and sisters and the like head west, facing tragedy and hard ship all along the way.  The family is met with kindness in spots but, ultimately, once they’ve reached California, find only deep corruption and mistreatment, as if they were animals rather than people by the local police and citizenry.

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