All Good Things (9/13/12)

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All Good Things is the dramatized recount of an actual unsolved murder case.

Based on the real events leading up to the trial of Robert Durst, renamed David Marks (Ryan Gosling) for the film. David Marks is the son of a wealthy real estate mogul, Sanford Marks (Frank Langella) who meets and eventually weds a young middle class woman named Katie (Kirsten Dunst). David rejects his father’s business plans and the young couple move from New York to Vermont and start a little shop they name All Good Things. David’s father convinces him to move back to New York and get involved in the family business and David’s demeanor begins to change. Soon, Katie mysteriously disappears and David is suspected of murder.

I had never heard of All Good Things before browsing for Ryan Gosling movies on Netflix (yes, I’ll admit it). What drew me to All Good Things is the true nature of the film, and even though some “based on true event” movies can come off as hokey I thought much of All Good Things worked quite well. I was not familiar with the actual case so the story was all new to me, which I think helped sell some of the ideas that the film interjects supposedly based on new “evidence”. So, while the film is based on reality, it doesn’t hinge its own success on that realism.

As a die-hard Ryan Gosling fan, I was actually very pleased with his performance in All Good Things, which is not very surprising. What is surprising is Kirsten Dunst’s performance didn’t bore me and I would even go as far as saying this is one of her better performances ever. The film builds a great tension that literally starts as a calm love story and escalates to a thrilling climax. David’s progression from mostly normal to his break with reality is also handled well, though explanations for it are glossed over in the last act. Immediately after the film was over, I wanted to know more about the actual case and I consider that a sign of a good movie.

If All Good Things had merely been a fictional thriller, it would have been just OK but considering the story is largely based on truth, I think that adds to the allure of it. The film isn’t perfect and it does drag in spots, but the electrifying performances by Gosling and Dunst really captivated me. I’m not sure if All Good Things is a film I would choose to revisit any time soon, but it’s certainly a film I would recommend for anyone seeking a true crime thriller.

I give it 4 Ryan Gosling makes a surprisingly ugly woman out of 5.

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Goon (8/12/12)

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In Goon, a nightclub bouncer becomes a hockey star by fighting his way into the sport.

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is the nicest bouncer around, apologizing to a man who he was being “bounced” from the bar as Doug was hitting him in the face. His hockey-loving friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), takes him to a hockey game and when one of the players makes his way into the stands to fight Pat, Doug steps in to fight and becomes the star attraction. Doug is offered to play for a local team acting as a bouncer for the players on the ice and has to learn to skate. Doug is then promoted to a better team to guard their star player and becomes the target for veteran hockey thug, and Doug’s personal hero, Ross “The Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber).

Goon is the perfect example of “don’t call it a sports movie”. Yes, the film centers around hockey, but all you really need to know about hockey is that they skate on the ice, they shoot a puck into the net to score, and occasionally they fight. Goon is really about a somewhat dimwitted guy trying to find himself and he stumbles upon something he’s good at and tries to make his parents proud. I will concede that the film follows a familiar pattern that many sports movies have laid out, but at least Goon is different.

Seann William Scott is an actor that may turn some people off of Goon before even watching it, but Scott is very subdued and actually does a good job as Doug. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jay Baruchel, who is a constant shrieking of douchebaggery every second he is on screen. I kind of just cringed and hope he would pass. Still, Scott’s humor was subdued and effective here, I laughed more than a few times but I wouldn’t quite call Goon a comedy, but it is comedic.

While Goon may not be a classic film, it sets out to tell a story and it does so effectively and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I found a lot to like, and was always a bit surprised whenever I would read positive press, but now I can fully see why and Goon deserves it. If you have been put off by Goon being a sports movie, it’s not, and if you were put off by Seann William Scott, don’t be.

I give it 4 penalty boxes out of 5.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild (8/5/12)

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A little girl lives with her father in a sheltered bayou community and goes in search of her mother as her father’s health begins to fail in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in an isolated shanty community called The Bathtub south of the levees in Louisiana. As her father’s health begins to fail and a storm rolls through, leaving The Bathtub entirely underwater, Hushpuppy believes the universe is out of balance and attempts to find her mother. Part of the universe being imbalanced means that a group of large beasts known as aurochs become thawed from the ice caps and are making their way south to The Bathtub.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is much more touching than I anticipated it being. Hushpuppy’s childlike wonder makes the film a blend of surreal fantasy and we are left to wonder what is really happening or what is her interpretation of the events. She knows little of her father’s illness because he keeps it from her and we, the audience, are also left mostly in the dark to the specifics. This also makes the aurochs a great force that is mysterious and their presence in the film is small but significant.

One thing that I normally point out when I review films is whether or not they use shakycam and then I point out how much I abhor shakycam. Beasts of the Southern Wild is shot entirely in this manner, but it works in the manner of the film and never feels out of place. In fact, after the first 15-20 minutes of the film, I barely even noticed because it just felt so organic.

First time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin really provides a lot of love here and Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that is quite hard to describe in short. While the plot may be too esoteric for its own good, and certain scenes seem to lack focus, everything has its place in the film. I went in to Beasts of the Southern Wild expecting a Where the Wild Things Are if it had been directed by Terrence Malick but I was way off. Beasts of the Southern Wild is actually quite unlike any other film I’ve seen that is a story of survival just as much as it is about growing up.

I give it 5 auroch face-offs out of 5.

Fun fact: The aurochs in the film are completely different from their real, extinct namesakes. The creatures in the film were created by using baby pot bellied pigs with a nutria skin prosthetic.

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The Naked City (6/19/12)

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The Naked City is a pseudo-documentary about the hunt for the murderers of a young woman in New York City.

The Naked City begins with an interesting narration that sets the film up as almost a documentary told through real people. While that realism permeates the film, there is a story behind the film and actors were used. After an attractive young woman is killed by two men, one of them becomes ridden with guilt and is killed by the other man. This sets off an investigation where many shady characters are investigated and the mystery grows larger as a series of robberies seem connected as well.

I went into The Naked City expecting a cold, gritty noir and when the film began I was thrown for a bit of a loop by the unique presentation. The story also ended up being different than I expected but I found it fairly enjoyable, if not a bit convoluted by the end. To fit in with the realism the film tries to set up, there are many non-actors used, which was a gamble that didn’t necessarily pay off. There are certain scenes that stand out more than others but it doesn’t necessarily hurt the flow or feel of the film.

I can honestly say I’ve never seen a film quite like The Naked City so from that perspective I was quite impressed. I was let down a bit by the story, which I had found confusing and not as noir-like as I was expecting. While I would certainly recommend it for its original setup, there are many other noirs from the time period that I would prefer to watch. Perhaps I missed out on something from the story, it’s quite possible, but even so The Naked City missed the mark for me.

I give it 3 opening sequences out of 5.

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Them [2006] (5/25/12)

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Them (Ils) is a film about a couple living in the secluded French mansion that gets terrorized one night by a group of unseen assailants.

Them begins with a mother and daughter driving along a dark country road when a figure appears in the road and the mother swerves to avoid hitting it. After crashing into a light post, she gets out and looks under the hood while the daughter remains inside. When the mother disappears, the daughter panics as she realizes she is not alone and is then strangled from behind. Cut to a woman who, on her way home from work, passes the car unknowingly. She then arrives home to her boyfriend and as the two settle in for the night, strange noises wake them. Soon they are terrorized by “them”.

I really wanted to love Them, perhaps I was expecting too much but even at a brisk 74 minute runtime the picture felt a bit long to me. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters and for a horror/thriller I was neither horrified nor particularly thrilled. However, in spite of all that, Them is a fairly enjoyable film, just not the masterpiece I was expecting. Finding out who “them” are was actually fairly satisfying and though it’s not the twistiest of twists in filmdom, it is realistic. Speaking of realistic, this is yet another film “based on true events” which is typically a flimsy excuse but in this case it is true, but glorified.

Them is a film that is worth seeing even though I was a bit harsh on it. At barely over an hour, it is a lean film that has little to no filler, but the downfall is that there is no meaningful character development. It is very similar to the US film, The Strangers, which I prefer over this. Still, Them is not a bad way to kill a bit of time and get some enjoyment.

I give it 3 the giant ants from Them! would have made this much more interesting out of 5.

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Slugs (4/24/12)

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I’m not going to sugarcoat it; Slugs is a terrible movie.

While browsing Netflix Instant Watch with Julian before leaving for Ebertfest, we happened on Slugs. I had mis-remembered a scene that had scared me as a kid and we thought we might be in for a so-bad-its-good horror movie. Oh, we were wrong.

Slugs starts off with a series of people encountering the slugs and possibly getting killed. I say “possibly” because there is no violence on screen, it always cuts away to the next group. After about 10-15 minutes of these cutaways we had two questions: 1) Would we get to see any slug-related violence? 2) Is the whole movie going to be random people getting eaten by slugs or is there a plot?

Turns out there is something that sort of resembles a plot in Slugs but it’s pitiful…Along with the acting, script, sets, production values, et cetera. The first half of the film you may get some enjoyment out of based on the sheer absurdity of it, but the second half of the film takes itself so deadly serious that it practically put us to sleep. Unless you really enjoy terrible horror movies, and I admit they can be fun, Slugs fails at even being enjoyable enough to make fun of as it drags on.

I give it 1 yes, this really happens in the movie out of 5.

(this is my first 1 star review, for anyone keeping track)

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The Lady Vanishes [1938] (3/26/12 & 12/22/12)

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The Lady Vanishes was Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before his move to Hollywood. Featuring his trademark  sense of humor and mystery, it is undeniably Hitchcock and a great movie.

Admittedly, I am more familiar with Hitchcock’s later work, but The Lady Vanishes is a fantastic film that has held up tremendously well for being over 70 years old. The film takes place mostly on a train. A group of travelers are heading back to England from the fictional European country of Bandrika. As we meet the ensemble cast, Iris (played by Margaret Lockwood) and Miss Froy (May Whitty) become closely acquainted. Iris falls asleep and wakes to find Miss Froy missing but when she asks about her whereabouts, no one on the train seems to remember her ever existing.

The train is the perfect setting for a film like this; it creates a sense of claustrophobia and being trapped. Some of the characters are a bit over the top, but for the most part they are believable. The mystery will certainly leave you guessing and the conclusion pays off.

One thing to note, while The Lady Vanishes is available through the Criterion Collection (cover art pictured), I watched the version on Netflix Instant Watch. The Netflix Instant version is nowhere close to the level of quality expected from Criterion, so I’m fairly sure it’s a different mastering of the film. The picture is a bit fuzzy and the audio was a bit uneven and slightly muddy sounding at times. It doesn’t detract from the viewing experience unless you are a total purist, but it’s something to consider.

The Lady Vanishes put me in the mood for more Hitchcock films, and not just his later works. Hitchcock truly was a master at his craft. The Lady Vanishes is a fun mystery and a great film to boot.

I give it 4 Hitchcock cameos out of 5.

[Update] I recently watched the Criterion blu-ray and my suspicions of the picture quality are mostly true. There are still some scratches and dust present, but the picture quality is far and away superior. The audio was still a bit uneven but not to the point of having to have the remote handy to turn up and down as needed. While this is still a great movie, I would easily recommend the Criterion versions in every way. Plus, the special features are pretty solid

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Super 8 (2/25/12)

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I wanted to love Super 8, I really did. When I read that the film is essentially a love letter to all great 80s movies involving kids having adventures and monsters, I knew I needed to see it. When I finally saw it I was elated but ultimately left unfulfilled.

Super 8 is about a group of kids in the 80s that are filming their own zombie movie when a train derails and things start getting weird. We eventually learn the train contained pieces of an alien spaceship (and also the alien) and he just wants to go home. Although I realize that sounds a lot like the plot of E.T., E.T. himself was not 30 feet tall and grotesquely scary…Well, at least not on grotesque on purpose.

In fact, the alien in Super 8 reminds me a lot of the monster in another J.J. Abrams flick, Cloverfield and apparently there’s a reason for that. So we have an alien terrorizing this town and the military moving in to keep things under wraps and re-secure the alien. Meanwhile, the kids are formulating their own plan to save a friend of theirs and save the day. If it sounds familiar, it is but that is also on purpose and is meant to be part of the charm of Super 8. It’s almost like if the Goonies were helping E.T. while E.T. destroys stuff.

If you grew up watching Steven Spielberg’s movies from the 80s then Super 8 is worth seeing, but the movie is slightly lengthy at nearly two hours. I thought it could have been a bit more focused during the middle because the ending felt rushed. Overall, I enjoyed Super 8 but I had higher hopes for it. When someone tells you “J.J. Abrams basically made a Steven Spielberg movie from the 80s” you instantly fall in love with that idea and the film just didn’t deliver that magic to me. I still found it highly enjoyable, but not the classic that it could have been.

I give it 4 Argus cubes out of 5.

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Three Outlaw Samuari (2/24/12)

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Three Outlaw Samurai is, in many ways, like other samurai films from Japan. There is a heavy price for honor and doing right and the lead samurai are all expertly skilled and incredibly smart.

While Western cowboy movies tend to lift the story lines from a samurai movie (Fistful of Dollars is Yojimbo, Magnificent Seven is Seven Samurai) I do not believe Three Outlaw Samurai has ever been emulated exactly, but the core pieces of it are familiar.

A group of peasants kidnap a magistrate’s daughter in the hopes getting fair treatment. A wandering samurai (ronin) finds the peasants and decides to help them. The magistrate is none too pleased about the kidnapping and sends men to kill the villagers. Among them are two other samurai. All three samurai have different goals, but eventually they unite to right the wrongs of the corrupt magistrate.

The movie is quite enjoyable and I had fun imagining what a spaghetti Western version of it would be like and how would play the samurai and the magistrate. While this is a Criterion release, it is short on the usual abundance of special features but comes at a lower than usual price as well. The rest of the package for Three Outlaw Samurai is great, and the film looks wonderful and crisp, however.

I give it 4 kidnapping peasants out of 5.

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Five Easy Pieces (2/21/12)

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In his Great Movies write-up for Five Easy Pieces, Roger Ebert called it “the first Sundance film”. This was of course referring to the Sundance Film Festival, which did not begin for another eight years. What he meant by this was that Five Easy Pieces was a pioneering indie film.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a musician working in an oil field, purposely making sure he does not live up to his potential. He is determined to be a mediocre outcast, but struggles to fit the role he wants for himself. Nicholson is divine as the lead role and despite his best efforts to make himself seem disagreeable, I found him to be identifiable and funny.

The story takes us with Bobby to visit his dying father back home. He travels with his girlfriend, whom he cannot seem to stand but keeps around as part of his facade. We discover he comes from a well off family and we also learn why Bobby wants so desperately to be his own man and disconnect from the bourgeois lifestyle. The film ends in a spectacular way that is perfect for the tone of the film.

After watching Five Easy Pieces I was surpised to learn it was nominated in four different categories for the 1971 Academy Awards, including best picture. I was not surprised because of the quality of the movie, but more so because I’m surprised audiences 40 years ago were very receptive to it.

The Criterion Collection has released Five Easy Pieces as part of their BBS Box Set. The set includes seven films from the BBS production company: Head, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Drive, He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens. I would highly recommend it, Five Easy Pieces alone makes it a gem.

I give it 5 barking Nicholsons out of 5.

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