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All reviews - Movies (204) - DVDs (1)

The Social Network

Posted : 6 years, 8 months ago on 7 October 2010 11:12 (A review of The Social Network)

It's fall 2003 at a dorm in Harvard University, and Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) is sitting in front of his computer. Back then (jeez, I say "back then" as if 2003 was a long time ago), one of the more popular blogging sites was livejournal.com (I still remember people asking me to "read their LJ"). Mark happens to have an LJ, and his blog is called Zuck-on-it (because his last name is Zuckerberg, in case you didn't know). After having argued and broken up with the girl he was dating, he has a few beers and posts some incredibly mean-spirited stuff about her on the blog, but with all the alcohol and anger, that doesn't seem to be enough. So, in an apparent attempt to get back at ALL GIRLS, he gets help from his friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), whom he affectionately calls "Wardo," to create a "hot-or-not" style website in which people compare girls based on attractiveness; as it turns out, the site gets so many hits that it crashes Harvard's server. This catches the attention of Divya (Max Minghella) and the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer), who pitch an idea to Mark about making a social networking site in which people can look up their friends. Mark accepts, but soon becomes evasive, never responding to any calls or messages from Divya and the twins. Turns out that Mark decides to go about making a social networking site of his own (with Eduardo's help), and leaves the other three guys out of it. Divya and the twins file a lawsuit claiming damages and intellectual property theft. The film shifts back and forth in time, going from the scenes that depict Mark and Eduardo's joint collaboration in creating Facebook to the scenes in which depositions are being held for the lawsuit. Things get severely complicated with Mark and Eduardo's friendship and business partnership upon the arrival of Napster creator Sean (Justin Timberlake), who has certain ideas about how to go about this venture, and one of them is to exclude Eduardo from it.

What I find ironic is that many people will view the character of Mark as a socially awkward weirdo that they can't relate to. My question to people is this: are you sure that you can't relate to him? Mark comes across as incredibly intelligent, yet it very quickly becomes evident that it's impossible to have a substantial conversation with him. He'll say two things at once, answer what's convenient for him, put a spin on heated conversations so that they're stabilized, yet none of it has the slightest bit of honesty to it. This is an incisive criticism of the way in which a society that is addicted to communication through written text rather than face-to-face interaction has become socially retarded, largely incapable of conveying feelings of any sort. It's the worst kind of regression, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK has no problem telling us just how severe the regression has been. Eduardo, on the other hand, is a sign of hope. Sure, his concern throughout the film is largely about getting "left out financially," but at the core of this, we can tell how morally conflicted he is about particular things and how worried he is about losing Mark as a friend. This becomes incredibly clear during one of the depositions, during which we initially think that Mark is being responsible taking notes, but we soon discover that he was just doodling; Eduardo, on the other hand, feels compelled to leave the room at one point because he simply can't handle the situation anymore. Eduardo is the film's emotional epicenter, while Mark is the "caution" sign that those of us watching the film should heed. At one point, Eduardo tells Mark, "Please, if there's something wrong, I want you to tell me." But Mark can't say anything, because he has no idea how to answer. He probably doesn't even understand what "Wardo" is saying. He's a computer genius but an emotional ignorant.

Of course, it's not all a dreary film. In fact, THE SOCIAL NETWORK often reaches the apex of wit. When Mark meets up with Eduardo at a Caribbean-themed party, Mark can't mentally handle the fact that there is a picture of Niagara Falls at a party that has said theme. Mark then takes Eduardo outside to talk about ideas for the website they're working on, and because Mark is so engrossed talking about this, he's entirely unphased by the cold, while a freezing Eduardo tries to listen to him. This is way too good, and deserves to be quoted:

EDUARDO - My knees are shaking.
MARK - Yeah, I know, I'm totally psyched, too.

Another laugh-out-loud moment that you may miss if you don't pay attention comes when Mark is talking about the Winklevoss twins and refers to them using the made-up plural "Winklevi" (which I'll continue to use in this review, for brevity's sake). Mark speaks at 100 miles an hour, and it'll be tough to catch all the brilliant lines he delivers, but well, that's why I'll surely be watching THE SOCIAL NETWORK again soon. There's a brilliantly hilarious sequence in which the Winklevi go to the office of Harvard's president. The administrative atmosphere of the university scene is captured PERFECTLY here, and there are oodles of dead-on acerbic humor from the actor playing the president. The banter from the Winklevi as they make their plea to him (with one being more respectful and the other more forceful) is nothing short of masterful screenwriting.

One of the many truly great aspects of THE SOCIAL NETWORK stems from what Eduardo calls the "Sean-a-thon" - the manner in which the filmmakers weave the character of Sean into the moral heart of the story is ingenious. There's a scene in particular that feels reminiscent of that moment in EYES WIDE SHUT during which Nick Nightingale is sitting at a table in a bar with Bill and indirectly, hesitatingly tempts Bill to get the address for the mysterious house that Nick will be heading to that night. The scene in THE SOCIAL NETWORK takes place when Mark and Sean are sitting at a club, and Sean is convincing him to go much further than Mark would've ever dreamed of. The club's red lights are on Sean as he speaks. There's been a lot of talk about the real Mark Zuckerberg's feelings on how he's been portrayed in the film, but what I'm MORE interested in is how the inventor of Napster feels about being portrayed as Lucifer in this movie.

Over the course of the last half hour of the film is when the sharpest arrows are aimed at today's "Facebook generation" (or however you want to call it). A couple breaks up when one of the two people gets upset over someone's relationship status, and um, the break-up nearly causes an apartment to burn down. Later on, the irony is simply too good when several teenagers all claim to be 21 when faced by a cop (they would've known better if they had watched SUPERBAD), and anyone who thinks this sort of thing doesn't happen in real life is seriously blind. But the thing that got to me on the most surreal level is what happens during the final seconds of THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Someone "does" something on Facebook, and then keeps doing it over and over again. It's something I've seen happen in real life before, and it's also the kind of thing that a lot of people do, despite never admitting to it. Communication has become too impersonal for people to admit things like that, as we learn during the film.

Because the film strives so much to accurately capture the generation it's portraying, there are times at which I admit its pace is a little bit too frenetic for me. During its first hour, THE SOCIAL NETWORK does a lot of explaining, most of it having to do with either Internet codes or business-related finances, both subjects I know very little about, and the fact that most of the explanation is done by the fast-talking Mark can be a little bit jarring. It's the type of material that'll be eaten up by people who are computer whizzes or finance experts (and those who are both will probably have an orgasm over it), but the rest of us may stare blankly every once in a while. The other quibble I have with the film is the fact that the depiction of the Winklevi is too much like that of stereotypical, snobby European kids. These two characters aren't given the depth that is given to others. There's also a somewhat strangely choreographed sequence in which they lose a rowing competition, and while it's meant to establish a parallelism to their losing battle against Mark, I didn't feel it came across as effectively as it was intended.

The acting in this film is of the highest caliber. Normally, I just write one paragraph to talk about performances, but an exception is warranted here. I thought that I would have to continue arguing with people about the fact that Jesse Eisenberg is a fantastic actor who does NOT play the same characters as Michael Cera (nor does he even physically look like him, aside from being white and skinny), but I think that after THE SOCIAL NETWORK, I won't have to keep doing it anymore. Here's an actor who's already given terrific performances before in unpopular films like ROGER DODGER, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE and last year's grossly underrated ADVENTURELAND. Now he even has a chance to get Oscar recognition for his uncanny ability to portray awkwardness and neurosis so perfectly. His rendition of Mark Zuckerberg is sheer brilliance.

Andrew Garfield is even more unheard of than Eisenberg, and it bothers me that the only role people seem to know him from is one we haven't even seen yet (he's been cast as Spider-Man in that franchise's new reboot). For those wondering "who IS this guy, and WHY was he picked to be Spider-Man?", I recommend that you rent the film BOY A immediately. The movie is fantastic and proof that Garfield is an astonishing actor. Then again, you can also notice that from his devastating performance in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Garfield benefits a lot from the fact that he's got the film's most emotionally meaty role, but his work with said role deserves an unequivocal A+. The scene in which he breaks down and calls Mark out on ruining their friendship is simply heart-breaking.

While people think of Justin Timberlake as the opposite of an "unknown" performer, the argument can be made that he IS one, at least in the realm of acting. Many may be surprised by the strength of his work in this movie, but that's because a lot of them won't have seen his equally great performances in ALPHA DOG and BLACK SNAKE MOAN (his work in the former film is particularly fantastic). His performance as the diabolical Sean is a delight to watch.

Referring to THE SOCIAL NETWORK as "the Facebook movie" or "the movie about Facebook" is not just an insult to this brilliantly timely piece of cinema, but it's also a substantially wrong description. Calling it "the Facebook movie" makes it seem as though the film is about things that are of interest to the tons of people who are obsessed with said website, when in fact, this film is about things that most Facebook-obsessed folks are (unfortunately) not interested in: true friendship and scathing betrayal. It's the kind of friendship that has nothing to do with clicking an "Accept" button and it's the kind of betrayal that has nothing to do with "de-friending" someone. THE SOCIAL NETWORK realizes that this Facebook-dependent society is becoming abominably impersonal and socially awkward, and it has no trouble transmitting that message in an incredibly effective way throughout its running time. It is a savagely critical and startlingly relevant work of cinema, and a truly impressive and heart-wrenching one at that.


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The Town

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 24 September 2010 03:24 (A review of The Town)

THE TOWN begins with what appears to be a voiceover in which our protagonist is talking about the characters and situations that will be unfolding during the next two hours. This didn't surprise me because Ben Affleck's last directorial effort (GONE BABY GONE) began similarly with a sublime, observant voiceover from its lead character. The shock comes when we realize that what we're actually hearing is Doug (Affleck, here doing double duty as actor/director) imparting instructions to his partners on how to go about the bank heist that they're about to perform. It's a wonderfully jarring introduction to what is a generally intense and satisfying action drama.

Doug and his team enter the bank wearing masks and they're soon selecting one of the employees to help them open the safe. Turns out it's Claire (Rebecca Hall) who may seem pretty nervous, but she doesn't lose her composure for a second. Due to complications with the police approaching, the guys are forced to take Claire with them when they leave the bank, since they may need to use her as a hostage. As it turns out, they don't need to go that far, so they simply drop Claire off at a random location. They soon discover that Claire lives closer to them than they thought, in the town of Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she's considered a "yuppie" (since she's not actually from there). Paranoid about Claire recognizing them, the guys want to surveil her, but soon Doug starts developing a relationship with Claire that goes way beyond surveillance.

Like GONE BABY GONE, this film is scrupulously raw and naturalistic, with some great cinematography of the city in which it's set. On a personal level, I felt a bit nostalgic about some of the aerial Boston shots, since it was only 2 years ago that I finished my college career there. Of course, though, the fierce, seedy life depicted in THE TOWN seems like something out of an entirely different world than the one I lived in while I was there.

There are several brilliant moments in THE TOWN which make me understand the fact that some critics have drawn comparisons to Martin Scorsese's work. The paranoia is incredibly palpable during a scene in which everything hinges on whether a person will turn his head in a certain direction, thus causing another person to see the tattoo he has on the back of his neck. Later, there's an ironic, uproariously funny moment in which the masked team of robbers stop in their tracks upon seeing a cop who wasn't really looking for them (or for any trouble, for that matter). The moment is placed perfectly because it comes right after what is probably the film's most intense shoot-out/chase sequence and serves as perfect comic relief.

GONE BABY GONE was a fantastic film, #4 on my top 10 list for 2007. Of course, much of its greatness was due to the ingenious moral dilemma that it presents to us in its final half hour. It's too bad that THE TOWN doesn't really offer us something along those lines. Action lovers will be satisfied with the film's final act, but for those of us who want more than that, there's a feeling that the film loses some of its complexity during its climax. We get an unnecessarily long shoot-out sequence that is also rather predictable. The film's final seconds are what I would call too pretty, too beautiful... that may sound good, but it certainly doesn't fit what had thus far been a particularly dark and raw motion picture. In fact, if any moral considerations come into play towards the end of THE TOWN, it's one that a lot of people may find reprehensible (does the film believe that if you steal millions of dollars from innocent people but then use it for a charitable cause you've redeemed yourself?). One of the other issues I have with the film is that it adheres too much to the convention of "the main character is technically a villain, but he's trying to get out of that lifestyle, he's trying to be a better person" - films seem to believe that audiences NEED that in order to sympathize with its lead. How about giving us a thoroughly flawed lead character, a total fuck-up? Maybe a lot of people wouldn't go for it, but I certainly would.

While THE TOWN doesn't deserve the accolades that I gave GONE BABY GONE, this is still an overall solid cinematic experience. Ben Affleck is as good a director as he is an actor who seems to display agony effortlessly. Rebecca Hall has an uncanny ability to play characters that seem both strong and vulnerable at the same time, and her skill at that is milked perfectly in this film. Last year's best actor nominee Jeremy Renner continues proving that he's not afraid to take on tough roles, as his work in THE TOWN is easily one of the film's most difficult performances to carry out. The always great Chris Cooper has a brief role as Doug's father (if only he'd been allowed to be in more scenes). The biggest surprise may come from Blake Lively who does something here that may surprise those who are only familiar with her television work: she plays the "skanky white trash" character to a t, and if she'd been in more scenes, she may have had hopes to get the same recognition that Amy Ryan got for her work in Affleck's previous directorial effort.

If this is the kind of result we're going to keep getting if Affleck continues using his hometown as a location, I hope he does exactly that. The success of action dramas depends a lot on how well they're able to balance the fast-paced sequences with all the plot/character development. THE TOWN handles that well enough to be worth seeing.


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Easy A

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 24 September 2010 03:22 (A review of Easy A)

During its first few minutes EASY A makes it a point to inform you that it's "not just another high school comedy," and the way the film immediately starts aiming its satirical arrows at the cliches and stereotypes of that genre means that it's a promise we can actually believe. While EASY A may not be entirely unconventional, it's undoubtedly fresh and entertaining, and it gets even better when you add Emma Stone's infectious, spunky persona to the mix. In the same vein as MEAN GIRLS, this film takes aim at the social pressures of high school to give us a plot that may seem outlandish when evaluated as a whole, yet one suspects that there are plenty of situations that will be relatable to anyone who is or has been in that dreaded place called high school.

I thought I was watching myself during the first few scenes of EASY A, as the protagonist, Olive (Emma Stone), confesses to us that she prefers chilling out at home during her weekends rather than going out, partying, going crazy, etc. It's the type of thing people think of as "boring" and criticize you for it in high school, but well, I've been out of high school for six years now, so I no longer care much about that. The same can't be said for Olive, though. She gets pressured so much by her friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) to go camping for the weekend that Olive is forced to tell Rhiannon what she initially thinks is a perfectly harmless white lie: that she's spending the weekend with a guy. After the weekend, facing even more pressure from Rhiannon, Olive says she lost her virginity to said guy. Word of mouth spreads, and suddenly Olive is the resident Paris Hilton of her high school, being gossiped about by everyone. Rather than wallowing in fear, she actually takes advantage of the situation in more ways than one, eventually even making money out of her celebrity status. Of course, as you'll expect, some things go wrong and Olive goes from super popular to super notorious, and as a character says later in the film, "notoriety doesn't really benefit the noted; it only benefits the notees." People love gossip not because they really CARE about the person they're blabbering about, but because they love to tell outrageous stories to others. It makes them feel important. They feed off of it.

Like many high school comedies, EASY A is based on a work of literature (in this case, Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"), but because this movie is as good as it is, it doesn't shy away from referencing its source material, constantly recognizing where and how it draws from it. EASY A doesn't treat us like we're a dumb audience, which cannot be said of most other films of its ilk. Its blatant jab at the Demi Moore film version of Hawthorne's novel is hilarious. EASY A is a smart, knowing work of cinema (the line about "Disneyworld going blue in the last election" is brilliant, and its quick, subtle reference to GOSSIP GIRL and THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS is timed perfectly). First kisses often happen in middle school, and they're generally devoid of the magic that people want for their first kiss, and there are often a lot of nerves involved. In a well-inserted flashback, EASY A takes us to a "sort-of first kiss in middle school" in a scene that is played surprisingly accurately.

If the focus had stayed on Olive's ventures into the dark side of high school popularity, EASY A may have easily been brilliant. The problem comes with a few of the subplots that are worked into the film. Marianne (Amanda Bynes) plays the requisite overzealous Catholic girl who wants to "save" Olive, and while Amanda Bynes is a wonderful comedic actress (it's really a shame that she announced her retirement from acting), she's saddled by a 100% cliched cardboard character that borders on cartoonish (it's not a problem with the performance - it's with the way the character was written). Similarly, the film features the requisite love interest, Todd (Penn Badgley), and of course, he's the only person who "doesn't believe" any of the rumors said about Olive and who wants to simply like her for who she is. We've seen this too many times before. Finally, there's a very awkward plot line that becomes more important than it should have, and it involves the school's guidance counselor having an affair with one of the students (of course, the student is a 22-year-old who has been held back a few grades, since we wouldn't want anything too dirty/illegal to happen here now, would we?).

Still, Emma Stone's charm ultimately carries the film and tips the scale in its favor for a recommendation. After seeing her supporting roles in SUPERBAD and ZOMBIELAND, I was particularly excited about this movie because her performances in those two films were incredibly natural (not a single false note) and she accomplishes the same in EASY A. The film is obviously a star vehicle for Stone, but we never feel like she's being jammed down our throats. She's giving an authentic performance and it seems like it's important for her to do so. Patricia Clarkson gives a delightful performance as Olive's mother, at times delivering some magnificently acerbic lines (most notably when she talks about her experiences during her own high school days).

While I can't give EASY A its titular grade, there's no doubt that it's a solid B, with its sharply observant script and good sense of humor.


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Going the Distance

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 12 September 2010 07:12 (A review of Going the Distance)

We hardly ever see any romantic comedies that are very good (let alone great), which is why it's easy to be reasonably satisfied with something like GOING THE DISTANCE. The movie deals with the subject of long-distance relationships by showcasing the negative effects of impersonal communication through text messages and whatnot on the interactions between people who are in love, yet in spite of being such a timely film, it offers a lot of the conventions that we've seen for years in romcoms. That can be a problem if it's done to the point of annoyance, but thanks to the charms of Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, annoyance is kept at a minimum. Neither of them is a great actor, but their on-screen chemistry alone is enough to recommend the film. It's quite a tough task for a pair of actors to maintain chemistry even when they're separate from each other in a lot of scenes, but this duo accomplishes it admirably.

Garrett (Justin Long) lives in New York and works for a record label. We get a glimpse at his most recent break-up with a girl, and from that glimpse, we can tell that he's the kind of guy who makes girls give up a lot to be with him, whereas he doesn't give up much himself. He meets Erin (Drew Barrymore) at a bar, and they start dating, but the problem is that Erin is only in New York for a summer internship, and she's leaving for California as soon as it's over. Garrett's favorite movie is TOP GUN, and Erin's favorite is THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Conventional choices, to be sure, but I can't help but always be overjoyed when characters in movies tell us what their favorite films are. A helpful montage displays the way in which the relationship blossoms, and soon it seems obvious that they're in love with one another. She leaves for California, but they decide to stay together and try the long-distance approach. This is where the frustration over being away from each other and over not being able to find jobs in the same city starts affecting each of them deeply.

If Barrymore and Long are more charming than most generic romcom couples, the same (unfortunately) can't be said of the supporting cast. I'd like someone to explain to me why it is that, in this type of film, the lead male character's friends are always super annoying stereotypical "dudes" who are in the film to offer gross/crude humor. There's a particularly hard-to-believe scene in GOING THE DISTANCE in which a friend literally takes Garrett's cell phone from him and shatters it with a golf club. Garrett's response? A mild "dude, I can't believe you did that!" In the real world, if a supposed friend of yours destroys your cell phone while you're talking to a significant other, the LEAST that'll happen is that you won't speak to the friend for several weeks. We wish that would happen in GOING THE DISTANCE, because it would've been nice if Garrett's two friends went off-screen for a while, but alas, they don't. They keep showing up, and one of them even takes a crap with the bathroom door open... awesome. Similar comments can be made of the female lead character's friends in romcoms... they tend to be the overly neurotic, nagging girl, and this is taken to an even higher extreme when the character is also the sister, as is the case in this particular movie. I guess it's not difficult to understand why these characters are always drawn that way: it's all about gender stereotypes. But that doesn't mean it can't bother me, and it certainly can't keep me from pointing it out as the significant problem in an otherwise decent romantic comedy.

The film features a solid amount of humorous moments. There's an unexpected, slightly scandalous moment in which the word "tip" and its multiple meanings is exploited for comedic purposes. There's also an incredibly welcome jab at Michael Bay that deserves an applause; this is one of those instances in which the subjects of masturbation and steroids are NOT used to make simple-minded crass jokes, and we should be very thankful for that. Speaking of that, an item of note is the fact that GOING THE DISTANCE is rated R instead of PG-13. If it had cut out some of the sex-related humor and the "fucks", it could've easily been PG-13, which is what most romantic comedies are, since they want to attract teenage girls. I'm glad that GOING THE DISTANCE chose to be rated R because, when it comes down to it, the subject matter is adult. By "the subject matter," I don't mean the sexual material, but rather, the seriousness of the struggle that Erin and Garrett go through in trying to make their long-distance relationship work. It's a film for people who know about the toils and troubles of being involved in anything beyond a high school fling.

But the factor that truly saves GOING THE DISTANCE and make it worth a recommendation is the last act. It often happens that an ending will ruin a film for me and force me to give it a negative rating despite having liked everything that came prior to the ending. Well, the opposite can happen as well, and it kind of does in this case. Of course the film has a happy ending... but it's a happy ending that is much more based on reality. It's a happy ending that comes after making some painful decisions and compromises. I expected to see an over-the-top happy ending in which one person would decide not to get on a plane at the last minute, or the other person would be sprinting down the hallways of an airport, but that isn't the case at all. It's a much more subtle ending, more true to what probably happens in real-life with long-distance relationships that are finally able to WORK, after all the pain and suffering and effort that was put into them. GOING THE DISTANCE is unafraid to show that a relationship is something that forces you to give up a lot of yourself in order to make something wonderful and worthwhile work out, and for that, it's worth seeing.


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The Good Guy

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 11 September 2010 03:11 (A review of The Good Guy)

THE GOOD GUY is reasonably entertaining, even if the entertainment is more akin to the one we derive from watching sitcoms on TV rather than to the one we should derive from watching a solid cinematic drama. Unfortunately, the film is hindered by two significant problems: 1) The "secret" that the title is supposed to conceal is completely obvious within the film's first half hour, and 2) The movie has a disastrously weak resolution. This second point will be discussed more thoroughly in the "spoilers" section.

The film uses the bookend method, which means that, at the very beginning, we see the film's climactic scene, and then suddenly we move back in time. Tommy (Scott Porter) is out in the pouring rain with no money, and he's begging his girlfriend Beth (Alexis Bledel) to let him in. It turns out that Beth is in the apartment with Daniel (Bryan Greenberg), and all she does is come to the door, give Tommy some cash, say "I feel sorry for you, Tommy," and then go back upstairs and leave him outside. The film then moves back a few months in time, and we see Beth and Tommy in an ostensibly happy relationship. We also discover that Tommy is one of those stereotypical hot shot Wall Street guys, and that Daniel is a low-tier employee at Tommy's workplace.

After watching THE GOOD GUY, I decided to listen to the commentary and I realized what had gone wrong with this film. The director intended for the movie to surprise audiences by having "the good guy" at the end NOT be the person that you expected. The problem is that the identity of "the good guy" and "the bad guy" is ONLY a mystery during those first few minutes in which we see the climactic scene. Less than half an hour after that, it's completely clear that Tommy is a smug asshole and that Daniel is an innocent, thoroughly sweet guy. As entertaining as the movie is, the mystery element is completely absent. If the failed attempt at being surprising were THE GOOD GUY's only problem, I would still give the film a recommendation. Sadly, the film's resolution is shockingly rushed and unearned, as I'll discuss now...

*SPOILERS BELOW*

We've seen plenty of movies in which the girl dumps the bad guy at the end in order to stay with the good guy... what we RARELY see is a movie in which that transition happens so suddenly. At the end of THE GOOD GUY, we understand why Beth no longer wants to be with Tommy. He's done enough terrible things for us to want her to dump him and move on with her life, maybe even take that job offer she got in San Francisco and leave the city. The problem is that the film believes that THAT ALONE is enough for us to believe that Beth just magically switches to being in love with Daniel. This is a movie that has a mostly honest handle on romantic dynamics, but it deviates from that COMPLETELY at the end when it suddenly adopts the shallow belief that someone can just transition from being in love with one person to being in love with another one. There hadn't been enough development between Beth and Daniel for the film to earn this. We understand perfectly that she chooses not to be with Tommy anymore, but the fact that that means that she AUTOMATICALLY switches to being with Daniel is outrageous. Who in their right mind thinks that relationships are that simple?

*END SPOILERS*

Scott Porter was cast not so much because of his acting talent, but because, in physical terms, he perfectly resembles the character of Tommy (read: he looks like a douche). He looks so much like a standard "pretty boy" that it's almost sickening. He had a smaller role in last year's BANDSLAM, which I enjoyed, and I can now appreciate more easily the fact that his role in that movie was so small. Porter pretty much smirks his way through THE GOOD GUY. I don't have a problem with the fact that he plays an asshole; I have a problem with the fact that his portrayal of an asshole is unrealistic. The far more handsome, manlier Bryan Greenberg fares much better; if he were cast into better movies, I totally believe that he'd be a wonderful "dramedic" actor. Alexis Bledel has the problem that she probably won't be taken seriously by a lot of people who will watch the film who won't be able to separate her work here from her TV endeavors. I have a philosophy of not letting what I thought of an actor's work in an earlier project affect what I think of their work in the movie that I'm currently assessing (if a comparison to an earlier performance is appropriate, then I'll make it in the review, but if not, then no). All in all, Bledel gives the easiest to believe performance in the film. Beth feels like much less of a stock character than Daniel or Tommy. Of course, that probably has something to do with the fact that the film tries so hard to have the two guys fall into the "good" and "bad" stereotype, which means that Bledel is able to portray a character who is neither perfect nor too flawed, thus making her someone we can relate to much more. I wish that the film's resolution were as authentic as her character, but sadly, its unnecessary focus on the "good guy/bad guy" dichotomy prevents it from accomplishing that.


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Solitary Man

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 11 September 2010 03:09 (A review of Solitary Man)

The first act of SOLITARY MAN is brilliant, expertly written and thoroughly unconventional. Instead of continuing down that path once the first act is over, the movie decides to move towards more familiar territory. My disappointment isn't too extreme because the film doesn't stop being dramatically effective and Michael Douglas perfectly dominates the screen, but I have to point out that if SOLITARY MAN had continued the approach it took during its first half hour, it could've easily been great.

Ben (Michael Douglas) used to be an extremely successful used car salesman... until he did something illegal. We eventually find out that the case against him was settled, so Ben didn't serve any jail time; unfortunately, that hasn't stopped his life from taking a tumble towards the worst. He's now heavily distrusted by most people, which is why he starts dating Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), a well-connected socialite whose daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) is a senior in high school who is getting ready to go to college in the fall. Through Jordan's connections, Ben is able to at least continue getting by despite the bad reputation he's acquired. After a few easy-to-swallow contrivances, Jordan asks Ben to accompany Susan to one of the colleges that she applied to, seeing as Ben is friends with the dean there.

The events that take place during Ben and Susan's university visit are absolutely brilliant. The conversations they have are a delight to listen to, from their awkwardness at the airport when Susan initially wants Ben to let her go by herself, to a surprising encounter they have at a bar where Susan was being seduced by a college boy. The other great aspect of this first act comes from Ben's interactions with Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), a quintessential college dork who gets to hear "lessons" from Ben on how to go about getting girls. The way in which Daniel is successful at getting a girl is far from what you'd normally expect from the scenario of "older, experienced guy helps kid get laid." But the best part of this wonderfully unconventional "college visit" is where it ultimately goes in terms of what Ben and Susan end up, um, doing with each other. I didn't expect it, and what I appreciated even more is that it's handled with a nice bit of class. The question "What are YOU gonna get out of the transaction?" has never been posed in a more amusing way on film.

The problem with SOLITARY MAN comes when the filmmakers decide that what Ben and Susan did should be revealed to other people. As soon as this happens, the movie doesn't become bad per se, but it becomes less interesting. Jordan and Susan hardly show up on-screen anymore, and the film becomes more about how now that Ben no longer has Jordan's connections, EVERYTHING starts going wrong for him. It's still entertaining to watch and Douglas deserves accolades for his performance, but it's not as amazing as what we could've gotten if the film had taken the route it seemed like it would take at first. As you'll expect, the chain of events eventually leads Ben back to the campus area. During the final scenes, the script does have a moment of brilliance in what it has to say about people who are "sweet, smart and funny" when they're young. That line is reminiscent of the same type of wisdom we witnessed during the first half hour. I liked SOLITARY MAN, and I know that it's useless to say "Well, they should've done this instead of that," because it's important to respect the storyline that the script eventually decided to go for, but it's also easy to be frustrated about how great a film this could have been.


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The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 11 September 2010 03:08 (A review of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse)

The fact that all these rumors about the third film in the TWILIGHT franchise being the best yet in the series are actually true may surprise several people, but it doesn't surprise me a huge deal, mainly because of the fact that David Slade came on board to direct this one. Slade was responsible for the searingly incredible HARD CANDY and for the surprisingly good, also vampire-themed 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. Hokey as the first two movies may have been, I had all the expectations in the world that Slade would do something good with ECLIPSE, and indeed, he does. This film improves upon the first two outings by upping the level of excitement from the action sequences and by doing a better job at depicting the things that are at stake emotionally with the story's three main characters. To make it even better (and this is really the factor that makes this film clearly distinguishable from the first two), the film knows when to make fun of itself. The first two films provided their share of unintended guffaws during some ridiculous, over-serious moments. Slade recognizes that there's a considerable amount of silliness to this whole thing and allows that to be exploited for humor that actually IS intentional (the best example of this is Edward's already famous line in regard to Jacob not wearing a shirt).

The love triangle takes center stage in the plot of ECLIPSE. There are many who disagree with what I'm about to say, but well, I said it in my review of NEW MOON, and I'll say it here again because it continues being true: this love triangle is handled better than love triangles we see in most films. Why? Because it's grounded in an emotional reality that was relatively evident in NEW MOON, and is even clearer in ECLIPSE: as much as we may call it a "love triangle," Bella's choice is TOTALLY obvious. A more contrived, hokey plot would have Bella (Kristen Stewart) wander indecisively from one guy to the other, and it would have Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner) constantly growling at each other, and threatening/insulting each other. The movie doesn't choose to focus on the cheap question of "Who will she choose?" It TELLS us that she is in love with Edward, but that she's conflicted about certain warm feelings that she also has for Jacob. That makes a lot more sense, and is a lot more relatable to a real-life emotional conflict (well, you know, minus the vampire/werewolf aspect). If this doesn't become obvious to the audience during the first hour of ECLIPSE, it'll become clear once the lines "I love you more" and "I know" are spoken.

The other reason why there's a sense of unconventionality when it comes to the so-called love triangle here is that Edward and Jacob are able to come together for purposes of protecting Bella, and there's a particularly well-executed scene in a tent in which they converse while Bella is sleeping. It is in this scene that we know for sure that Edward and Jacob aren't mere wooden pawns for Bella to pick one and discard the other. Each of them understands and accepts how important the other guy is to her.

One of the other great strengths that I mentioned the movie has is its much better handle on humor than the first two films. Billy Burke gets some great one-liners in as Bella's father (particularly during the uncomfortable conversation in which Bella has to reveal to him that she's still a virgin). Bella and Jacob's first kiss is followed by an unpredictable and frankly hilarious, um, "punchline." But if I have to pick the one moment in which it's most obvious that this franchise has finally learned to make fun of itself (rather than succumb to unintentional ridiculousness), it's when the line "You know I'm hotter than you" is uttered... just wait till you see the context in which it is said.

The other surprise to be found here is the fact that the embarrassing special effects don't quite plague this film as much as they did the first two. The battle sequences are more exciting, and the final showdown between Edward and the evil Victoria is very satisfying. Sadly, though, I do take issue with the switch from Rachel Lefevre to Bryce Dallas Howard to play the villain; the former actress was a lot more menacing-looking. One of the aspects that has been constantly weak in these films and that continues to be weak here is that the villains aren't developed well. The film is too interested in the romantic plot, which is fine, but it hardly leaves any room to get us to hate the evildoers. Thus, in ECLIPSE, we just have to accept that there's a new "army" of evil vampires who are coming to kill Bella, even if we hardly get any well-developed scenes that set this up.

Another flaw to be found in ECLIPSE emerges during its last few minutes. The denouement of the first TWILIGHT movie (mediocre as that film was) did a good job at setting up Bella's dilemma of whether to change herself into a vampire or stay human. Similarly, the final moments of NEW MOON created a great hook that left everyone waiting for the next installment. Unfortunately, if it weren't for the fact that it's practically common knowledge that there's a fourth chapter in the franchise, some may assume that ECLIPSE was the last film. This film's last scene could easily appear to be definitively conclusive. There isn't much to tell us what stakes are going to be on the line in the next chapter.

Performance-wise, Kristen Stewart continues to be the strongest link. Those who are scoffing as they read this are probably among those who give Stewart a truly unnecessarily hard time by bashing her on message boards. I understand where the bashing comes from: most of the TWILIGHT fans are teenaged girls who wish they could be Bella so that they could make out with the two male characters, so they're jealous that Stewart actually DOES get to be Bella. Boohoo. But the truth is that Stewart has been a consistently great young actress, and I continue to think that she'll have great projects coming her way once life after TWILIGHT begins. I'm glad to say that Slade gets a SLIGHTLY better performance out of Robert Pattinson than the first two directors did... but I'd like to stress the word "slightly" and if you read my reviews of the first two films, you'll see how little that really means (read: he's still kinda bad). Taylor Lautner has a better handle on line delivery and comedic timing, and if it were up to me, Bella would choose Jacob, just so that she can be with the character who is played more genuinely, but I know there's a slew of people who disagree.

The first TWILIGHT film was utterly mediocre. Contrary to how most people felt, I actually liked NEW MOON more because I found it more entertaining at the time, but after some reflection, I think I've realized that it may simply have to do with the fact that Pattinson wasn't in that film as much. However, there's no doubt about the fact that David Slade has given us a marked improvement in this third installment. The story is more cohesive and interesting, and none of its humor is misplaced. Since I'm not a fan of the ending, though, I'm not sure where to place my expectations for BREAKING DAWN, which will be split into two movies. While I have faith in Bill Condon, I have to admit that I'll lower my expectations considerably if (as I fear) the movies aren't rated R. If we have another case (a la THE LOVELY BONES) of sanitizing things to achieve a PG-13 rating, there's probably little hope for the final two movies to be anything more than so-so, but we'll see.


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Killers

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 11 September 2010 03:07 (A review of Killers)

KILLERS serves as excellent support for the argument that people who are ridiculously attractive can get whatever they want without having to work too much. I see no other explanation for why Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl can get away with performances as horrible as the ones they give here, and still continue making movies. If that were it, I wouldn't be so upset, but sadly, KILLERS is a stale, largely unfunny piece of cinema that lacks even the urgency to make its scenes remotely exciting or amusing.

We start off with one of the most annoying credit sequences I've seen in a long time. It's edited horribly, cutting away from one shot to another in the most annoying way possible. Once that's done with, the scenes that set up the relationship between the two leads are actually decent, largely because they're shot with the beautiful French city of Nice in the background. There's a cute, inventive moment in which Spencer (Kutcher) and Jen (Heigl) are at a restaurant and they have a conversation while looking at each other under the table. Once the film moves back to the U.S. and we move ahead three years in time, the severe annoyance starts to ensue. I don't care that much about the fact that the film actually wants me to believe that Ashton Kutcher is a professional killer - fine, I'll believe it. What I do care about is that roughly 85% of this film consists of completely uninspired scenes in which random people show up and start shooting at the couple, since there's a $20 million bounty on Spencer's head, gasp! (I suspect that there are people out there who would be happy to shoot Kutcher for a lot less money) The comedy is limited to small chuckles here, and the shoot-out sequences are more likely to cause dizziness due to their repetitive nature and because the film can't find even a slightly off-beat way to present them.

There's a slight bit of respite during the movie's final moments. I appreciated Catherine O'Hara's nonchalant performance while a gun was pointed to her head. The film features a lame, overdone joke involving O'Hara's character pouring alcohol into everything she drinks, but at least here in the final act she actually gets to display some comedic prowess that keeps me from giving KILLERS a lower grade.

Kutcher has shown acting potential in other films, though not here. Unfortunately for him, I have a hard time imagining that he could get taken seriously for a heavy dramatic role. He tried to take a turn for the dark in last year's SPREAD, in which he did a decent job (but had a terrible voiceover to work with), and his flat work in KILLERS leaves a lot to be desired. For the last 4 years, Katherine Heigl has been starring in romantic comedies... notice the pattern of decline in quality from KNOCKED UP to 27 DRESSES to THE UGLY TRUTH and now to KILLERS (which I really hope is her nadir, for her sake). The truth is that even in a wonderful comedy like KNOCKED UP, her acting was among that film's weaker aspects, but it can't even compare to how bad she is in KILLERS. The supposed emotional transitions that Jen experiences fail to register in Heigl's facial expressions.

The opening scenes in Nice had the potential to elevate KILLERS into a wonderful and charming romantic comedy. And jeez, these two may be bad actors, but you would've thought that their looks would've at least made this movie a superficially pleasant watch. Sadly, once those opening scenes are over, the film becomes just plain ugly and boring. It wouldn't surprise me if some people who go see this actually start rooting for the gun-wielding neighbors.


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Toy Story 3

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 11 September 2010 03:06 (A review of Toy Story 3)

The fabulously charming TOY STORY 3 is yet another triumph for the folks at Pixar. In a time in which cinema seems to be lacking creative minds and multiplex screens are swamped in the dross of lame remakes and reboots, it is incredibly refreshing to see something so thoroughly entertaining and original, an animated movie that will easily satisfy audience members of all ages. TOY STORY 3 is the best animated film since WALL-E, and it is leagues above every other film I've seen this year so far.

Although the first two TOY STORY films came out in the 90's, this third entry to the franchise could've easily picked up right where it left off. However, the filmmakers apparently made the decision of acknowledging all the years that have passed by and integrating that reality into the story. Therefore, Andy (John Morris) is now a grown teenager who is getting ready to go to college. For a long time now, his toys have been inside a box, and it's been several years since Andy has played with them. Of course, now that Andy's leaving his room, a decision has to be made as to what to do with them. Even when I became too old to play with my toys, it was always hard not to get a sense of nostalgia on the random day that I would be cleaning my room and suddenly found one of my old toys stashed in a drawer somewhere. Will Andy get nostalgic and take his toys to college, or will he leave them so they can gather dust in the attic? Or will he simply ask his mom to throw them away? All I'll reveal is that, after a contrivance or two, Andy's toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare. Initially, the toys are thrilled to meet some other toys and to discover that now they'll be played with by the dozens of kids at Sunnyside... but, well, soon we discover that things aren't quite as sunny as the toys expected.

TOY STORY 3 doesn't once stray into boring territory. The chase sequences and other more action-packed moments are predictably entertaining, but the fun doesn't stop during the banter between the toys, which is often a delight to listen to. There's a hilarious sub-plot (which I suspect will also stir nostalgia in a lot of older viewers) involving the popular girl toys Barbie and Ken (voices by Jodi Benson and Michael Keaton). A scene in which Ken tries on different clothes and models them for Barbie is delightfully unconventional and likely to stir more laughs among adults than children, and the same goes for the subsequent scene in which Barbie pretends to be Ken but forgets to remove her heels. However, if I'm forced to come up with the best of all the strokes of genius in TOY STORY 3, I have to go with one toy's switch to Spanish mode - I suspect that, as a Spanish-speaker, I was able to enjoy this more than people who were forced to read subtitles, but there's no doubt that this is incredibly creative and hilarious, a brilliant idea. If there's a narrative misstep in the film, it has to do with the way it disposes of its center villain. It's one of those cases of "bad guy turns good, but then turns bad again at the last minute," which works sometimes, but feels somewhat awkward here. More importantly, the ultimate fate suffered by the movie's chief villain feels a bit anticlimactic. Considering how developed the bear Lotso was (with a great background story to explain his motivations), we deserved a little bit more closure.

But that quibble was quickly dispelled from my mind during the amazing, heart-wrenching final act of TOY STORY 3. The plot had, of course, focused so much on its title characters that it comes as a bit of a surprise that the film chooses to dedicate time to the sudden sadness of Andy's departure for college. One may expect that, because Andy and his mother are mere secondary characters, the filmmakers wouldn't waste their time and energy into this, and you have to applaud them for doing so. The scene deeply affected me on an emotional level because it was obviously reminiscent of the day when I had to say goodbye to my parents a couple of years ago to go off to college, and it's hard to imagine that this won't resonate just as well with the zillions of people who have faced the exact same situation. But that's not all. I haven't yet even talked about the movie's final scene... which made me cry. I didn't think I'd ever say that about an animated movie. Anyone who has a heart will be hard-pressed not to at least feel an emotional tug during this film's coda. Anyone who's had a hard time letting go of something or someone, or who understands the pain of moving on in life, will surely be deeply affected during these final moments. If this is the last entry in the TOY STORY saga, it is a supremely worthy conclusion, and probably one of the best third films in a franchise ever.


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The Joneses

Posted : 6 years, 9 months ago on 11 September 2010 03:05 (A review of The Joneses)

Here's another one in the long list of movies with thoroughly interesting and inventive plots that get watered down in their execution due to an apparent fear to go too far into emotionally dark territory. The idea for THE JONESES could've made for a brilliant cinematic critique of the rampant consumerism in American society as well as a satire of family dynamics and of how people hide behind masks in order to adhere to social conventions. Unfortunately, the movie deals simplistically with its subject matter, and even worse, there's very little chemistry between the two leads, and the two supporting players don't get as much screen time as they deserved.

From an outsider's perspective, Steve (David Duchovny) and Kate (Demi Moore) look like the perfect couple. They move into an incredible new house, they start making great acquaintances with their fellow neighbors, and their kids, Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) and Jenn (Amber Heard) quickly become the most popular stars at the high school they attend. As we discover almost immediately, though, these four people aren't actually related in the least bit. They are posing as a family, planted in this new neighborhood so that they can give off the impression that they're the perfect American family, and more importantly, so that they can convince their friends and neighbors to buy all the same products that they've got in their house. Every once in a while, "the Joneses" get a review on how each of them has individually performed in increasing the sales of the products they've been marketing around their neighborhood.

There's some good fun to be had during the first hour of THE JONESES, as the pretend-family puts on such a great act while people visit them, and then once they're alone in the house, everything turns to business talk. Of course, it's not long before feelings start settling in and it starts becoming harder than anticipated to continue the charade. There's a wonderfully executed scene in which Steve and Kate are at a restaurant with some of their neighbors, and suddenly, a person who knows the REAL Steve recognizes him and tries to come over to the table to say hello.

Unfortunately, while David Duchovny and Demi Moore give decent performances, it's impossible to believe the chemistry between them. There's supposed to be a moment in the film in which Kate relents and suddenly starts developing feelings for Steve, but it's impossible to tell how or why it happens. It's also impossible to tell why the film chose to give such little screen time to Mick and Jenn - it would've surely been interesting to see more of them pitching certain items to fellow friends and classmates at school. There's a twist involving Mick's character that is not only predictable, but also, it's the kind of twist that is now starting to become cliched and tired (certainly not something that'll shock people as much as it would've if they were watching a movie 15 years ago).

But what truly damages the film is that the delightfully breezy tone it had during its first hour takes a jarring turn for the tragic during the last half hour. The film tries to make a point about the hazards of people's obsession with having as much stuff as they can and chooses to go way too far rather than sticking to subtlety. The scene in which everyone is gathered outside of a house and a confession takes place feels misplaced and more like something out of a sitcom rather than something that belongs in the excellent dark comedy that THE JONESES should've been.


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