Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: The Orphanage

Starring: Belén Rueda, Geraldine Chaplin, Fernando Cayo
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Release Date: January 11, 2008 (wide)
Running time: 100 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Picturehouse

I’m pretty sure any time you are a former foster child growing up in a creepy old house the last thing you want to do is buy it later in life and reopen it. I guess I can’t speak from experience, but it seems a bit off-putting on its own.

The Orphanage is presented by Guillermo del Toro and directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona. The Spanish horror film is about Laura (Belén Rueda), a former resident who returns to the orphanage where she grew up with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their son Simón (Roger Príncep) with plans to reopen it as a home for sick and disabled children. Simón, an only child, has imaginary friends that worry his parents mildly, but not alarmingly. That is until he informs his mother of a game him and his new friend, Tomás play — a scavenger hunt that leads to the boy finding out a family secret about himself. After a period of reclusion and a chilling scene where Laura thinks she sees Tomás, Simón disappears. Without a trace. Over the coming months, Laura and Carlos are slowly driven apart by the separate paths their individual grief takes. Carlos tries to remain a realist, but Laura begins to see these imaginary friends and continues to search.

Any time you have an old house as a setting, you automatically make an additional character for your movie, good or bad. This film benefits from the subtlety of the “performance” of the house. It helps create a mood here that goes beyond creaky doors and antique furniture by creating a visual style that complements the setting and the mood perfectly. Even the muted, dull, earth tones help add to the ambiance of the film. Of course the setting does not completely make the movie, it just helps. There are also strong performances, namely from Rueda who wisely embodies the emotion of a mother dealing with loss without overplaying.

This is a perfect example of how a PG-13 horror movie should be made, even though calling it a horror movie is misleading. It’s a simple ghost story that does what it set out to do. The good thing about this movie is that it works very well despite the lack of blood and gore. Instead, it relies on another device that seems to have been forgotten by filmmakers these days trying for the same affect — tension and pacing. The Orphanage tells a genuinely intriguing and often scary, ghost story that never cheats, yet explains everything in the end. The good thing about this is that it works exceptionally well. The bad thing about it is that it works exceptionally well. Not bad directly, but any time something works well like this, the jackals at American studios immediately rush out multiple attempts to recreate the same feel. The result is all the remakes we get dumped on us until we are oversaturated with inferior redo’s until the well runs dry.

I sat down to write this review and I had in mind what I wanted to say. One thought I had while watching the movie was, “I wonder how effective this movie would have been as an American ghost story?” Since the American version of horror these days is throwing buckets of blood everywhere and coming up with elaborate death scenes that star the newest flavor of the week, more times than not the answer is ‘no’. While I was getting ready to write the review I found out we don’t have to wait long to get the answer on this one. It seems that New Line Cinema has acquired the English-language rights and plans to move forward with a remake. Can’t we at least let the body get cold before we start picking the meat off the bones? And more importantly, why? Haven’t we already proven we can’t successfully remake foreign horror? The Ring was just, ok. Beyond that I can’t think of one off the top of my head. The Orphanage is the type of movie that should be seen and applauded on its own merits. I strongly recommend seeing it now, before its impact is greatly watered down by a shoddy American remake.

And there’s the rub.

*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review: There Will Be Blood

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Release
Date: December 26, 2007
Running time: 158 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Paramount Vintage

“Ladies and gentlemen… I’ve traveled over half our state to be here tonight. I couldn’t get away sooner because my new well was coming in at Coyote Hills and I had to see about it. That well is now flowing at two thousand barrels and it’s paying me an income of five thousand dollars a week. I have two others drilling and I have sixteen producing at Antelope. So, ladies and gentlemen… if I say I’m an oil man you will agree.

You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, you can lose it all if you’re not careful. Out of all men that beg for a chance to drill your lots, maybe one in twenty will be oilmen; the rest will be speculators — men trying to get between you and the oilmen — to get some of the money that ought by rights come to you. Even if you find one that has money, and means to drill, he’ll maybe know nothing about drilling and he’ll have to hire out the job on contract, and then you’re depending on a contractor that’s trying to rush the job through so he can get another contract just as quick as he can. That is the way this works.”

That is the opening dialogue of the movie by oil man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). It comes no less than 15 minutes into the picture and tells us all we really need to know about the man. But we don’t know this to be fact until the end of the film, more than two hours later.

There Will Be Blood is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest and best film to date. Coming from me, the last sentence says more about this film that anything else you will find in this review. Singularly due to the fact that I am a huge PTA fan. Eleven years after the debut of his first feature film, Hard Eight, the man has made a grand total of five films. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia (one of my top five favorites of all time), Punch-Drunk Love, and now There Will Be Blood. With a resume like that, why go for volume? While all of his films thus far have been excellent, There Will Be Blood is his most creatively daring, by far his most ambitious, and easily the crowning achievement of a brilliant career.

PTA’s films, like those of Tarantino and Scorsese, are trademarked for creating a distinct universe — a universe where he uses these large ensembles to tell elaborately intertwining stories that barrel along seemingly unrelated to each other, slowly and methodically peeling back the layers while simultaneously showing the growth and self-destruction of its characters until a transformation is complete. There Will Be Blood does this, but replaces the cast and multiple storylines for that of one man and his many conflicts. The results are some of the best filmmaking of this decade.

You’ve all heard the reports, and I can tell you that for once, they are not inflated or oversold: Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely remarkable in the film. Anderson may have created the character of Daniel Plainview on paper, but Day-Lewis immerses himself in the character so deeply that he becomes Plainview, redefining the concept of the craft of acting itself. Daniel Plainview is as ruthless as he is mesmerizing. He is a man who creates tension simply by participating in conversation. He commands the direction of the conversation so much that when asked a question he doesn’t like, he simply continues as if it were never asked.

There Will Be Blood is a sprawling epic of a story told with exacting precision. The movie takes place during the span of 29 years and in the hands of a lesser-skilled director, it could have been a brutally boring mess. The movie tells the story of Daniel Plainview, an oil man of modest beginnings, who in 1898 discovers oil while prospecting for silver. He begins drilling and soon earns enough money to build a small drilling company. By 1911, he has become one of the wealthiest, most successful oil men in America.

Plainview is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who sells him an oil lead on his family’s property in Little Boston, CA. When he arrives and attempts to buy the land, Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also Paul Dano), raises the price — the lion’s share of which is intended to be used in the founding of his own church. This is the first of many run-in’s between the two men and the beginning of a conflict that will span the next 16 years and the rest of the film.

So many reviews of this movie claim that it is about the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview — this is only partially right. On the surface that is the story, but underneath there are uglier elements at play that make this movie what it is at its core, like discussions of concepts such as family, capitalism, and religion. Daniel Plainview’s only family is his “son and business partner” H.W. Plainview. While he primarily uses H.W. to soften his sales pitch at various towns along the way, I think he truly cares for the boy. That is, until an accident at one of the oil wells permanently impairs H.W.’s hearing. Take notice when the accident occurs: the derrick explodes and Daniel immediately tends to H.W. until he realizes the injuries aren’t life threatening. He then spends the rest of the night and into the following day staring up at the burning remains until the problem is resolved — as if nothing else in the known world exists but him. He gets angry at his son for, in his mind, committing the crime of going deaf. This shows fallibility and weakness that Daniel cannot surround himself with if he is to be as successful as he intends.

That Plainview is driven by greed is not the surprise. It’s the fact that he does so while operating as if it were a sickness, which lends to the idea that he doesn’t have a choice. By planting that suggestion, it implies that pity should befall him for his actions. This is the stroke of genius by Anderson and realized by Day-Lewis’s performance that makes this film work so well. By laying the foundation as they did, and after everything Plainview does in the movie, we somehow do not hold him accountable for his actions because he did them all not by choice, but a matter of instinct. And we quietly root for him the whole time, even if we don’t like admitting as such.

The main contention in the film is the conflict between religion and capitalism. By showing that a complete and total devotion to either ideal would result in a flawed conclusion, the movie does not take a side. It doesn’t need to. It’s almost as if they presented both sides of the argument and allowed them to crucify each other. Had each man understood that they could have both co-existed, things may have ended differently; although not nearly as engaging. As it were, the men wound up being consumed with their own contorted sense of victory as well as with proving each other and the ideals they represented, wrong. While I think they could have coexisted with each other, once each were hell bent on destroying the other it makes you wonder, would one exist at all without the other? If each man began at opposite ends of the morale spectrum their paths were clearly marked on a crash course to the middle towards an inevitable conclusion.

Many people will hate the ending of this film. My response to those people: you obviously haven’t been paying attention. The end of this movie is as perfect as anyone could have ever imagined. It is supposed to be unsettling. It is not supposed to go down easy (like say, a milkshake?). You just spent the last 150 minutes watching Plainview build his empire, achieve his own distorted notion of success at all costs, sacrifice anything and everything to serve his own intentions while becoming a slave to his own pride, and what, you wanted a happy ending?

At the end of the film we see Plainview as a financially wealthy recluse, jailed in the prison of his own creation and refusing to have learned the method by which to communicate with his son (sign language). But he is still searching. He has all the money he could have ever wanted, the fame, and even the reclusion that he thought would make him happy, but he doesn’t come alive until the final minutes of the film. I will not ruin the events that transpire but there is a precise moment at the very end where he feels he has nothing left to fight for — like he has finally won. He finally defeated the man, the church, and more importantly, religion itself. The same religion he spent so much time trying to avoid and the very religion that failed him when his son went deaf. Because capitalism WAS his religion, he finally got what he had been fighting for his entire life. It is only then can make his final declarative statement that perfectly sums up the entire movie:

“I’m finished.”

And there’s the rub.

**** out of ****

Monday, January 21, 2008

Review: The Bucket List

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman
Director: Rob Reiner
Release Date: January 11, 2008 (wide)
Running time: 97min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Warner Bros.

I like pizza. I’d say it’s one of my favorite foods. It’s easy, it’s always good, and you can create variety just by changing a few toppings around (I’d say I’m a supreme guy, for anyone interested). I also like chili and spaghetti. But if you tried to put chili and spaghetti on a pizza I don’t know that the end would justify the means. (Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad…). My point is just because you like the ingredients doesn’t mean you will like the finished product as a dish. You could say The Bucket List is kinda like a chili-spaghetti pizza.

I mean honestly, who doesn’t like Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson? The two of them have been in some incredible movies. Doesn’t it make sense that the two of them in a movie together would be good, if for no other reason than to see them in the same movie? Yes, that makes plenty of sense. What doesn’t make sense is why they picked such a lackluster project to finally work together. And don’t get me started on Rob Reiner — or as the name tag he would wear to a high school reunion would read, “Hi, My name is: I haven’t made a good movie in over a decade.”

A mechanic, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and the obscenely wealthy Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) are two elderly men who discover they have terminal cancer. As they share a hospital room, they become friends and decide to fulfill their lifelong personal desires by way of their “bucket list,” a list of things to accomplish before they kick the bucket. Cutesy. So the conveniently wealthy Cole (they need the trip bankrolled, don’t they?) and Carter up and take off to live out their wildest fantasies.

I don’t claim to understand women, but I have a handle on some of the basics. Such as if you just tell your wife you have less than a year to live and you plan on spending it gallivanting around the world with a stranger on some personal mission without explaining anything more, I’m pretty sure she’d smack your ass hard enough to put you back in the hospital. And not only do these terminally ill cancer patients show few signs of illness, they are apparently healthy enough to fly around the world and back. How convenient.

From here it is a rush job to see how many extravagant locations they can slap up on the green screen to make these two stand in front of. Some of it was bad. It reminded me of Toonces, the Driving Cat on SNL. Not once did you really believe the background to be conveying the realism of a cat driving a car. At least in Toonces’ case, it was supposed to be for comedic effect.
The saddest part of The Bucket List isn’t the impending doom of cancer, it is how depressing it is to see these two screen legends wasted on a movie this bad. It’s almost as if they got into filming, realized the garbage heap they were in the middle of, and just phoned it in. And it was a long distance call.

The Bucket List commits the most blatant of movie crimes: it thinks it is something that it is not and it tries way too hard. Reiner can’t decide how to play the material so he tries to funny it up. Then it needs to be serious and he pushes that down our throats. It’s not as emotionally manipulative as say, Pay It Forward, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Sean Hayes as Chambers’ assistant is the best part of the movie. His laughs are accomplished through the subtle art of restraint. Restraint, huh? Now THAT would have been a novel idea.

And there’s the rub.

* out of ****

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

DVD Review: Rob & Big - Season 1 & 2 (Uncensored)

Rob & Big: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 (Uncensored)
Starring Chris Boykin, Rob Dyrdek
Paramount Home Video
Available Jan. 8, 2008
Come on, you know the words. Sing along with me:

“My Buddy, (my buddy)My Buddy, (my buddy)Wherever I go, he goes…”

From the equally annoying yet perfect opening theme song, the MTV comedy reality series Rob & Big crams the idea of friendship down our throats with such force you almost turn away in disgust. The show follows the lives of professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek and his best friend and head of security Christopher “Big Black” Boykin. The premise of the show is simply to follow them around and document their antics, of which there are many.

YO! MTV Raps, The Headbangers Ball with Riki Rachtman, Remote Control, Liquid Television — these are the shows I think of when I think MTV. Or at least MTV as it was when I watched it regularly. I guess you could say I am one of those people who stopped watching “when they stopped playing music videos.” It just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I probably swung back during the initial Jackass craze, but for the most part I have, dare I say, outgrown MTV. But for all the new MTV programming that has been lost on me in the last 5-10 years, this show is different.

For starters, Rob & Big is watchable. That seems like a simple idea but think about it, MTV is, at the very least, partially responsible for the demise of the American attention span. The oft-tired, quick-cut, Ridley Scott-style of editing was damn near invented by MTV. So to say this is watchable says something different from the jump. Along with its watchability, the show is funny. Not the typical flash in the pan, “watch this guy take a bat to the nuts” funny; it is “sit by yourself after a hard couple of days and laugh out loud” funny. That these two are best friends is apparent from the beginning, but once you start watching the show, you see how genuine their friendship is, and that comes through in how funny the show is.

The guys end up in various locations (Montreal, Vancouver, Florida, Mississippi, and Ohio). And yes, they get into some really random and ridiculous situations (Big Black comes out of male-stripper retirement as Black Lavender; the guys attempt to start Fitness Week; they attempt time travel), but the parts of the show I liked the best were the quieter, less manic moments — the moments where the two of them are just sitting around the house talking or playing with Meaty, the house bulldog. Those are the moments that strike the truest picture of the friendship these two have forged and they are usually the funniest. Not because of anything in particular that they get involved in, but because that is when the realism shines through. Like you and your friends sitting around and laughing about nothing of any substance but think it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard.

Just listen to Rob talk to Big. Oftentimes Rob has such a sense of exasperation in his voice; a restrained delivery that is very genuine and comes off as very funny. Don’t believe me? Watch the Special Feature on Disc 4 where they feature Rob & Big on MTV Cribs. On that show, they are doing their best “keep up with the Joneses” impression of other people that has ever graced that show, pimping out their gear and doing their best to convince everyone how hard they are. Then watch the show on the rest of the discs. They drop the act and we get a glimpse into their real life. Or as real as life can be when you are a rich, professional skateboarder that has no discernable job.

Even on a show as funny as this, there are gems that stand out. Black Lavender #2.5, “making it rain” $1 bills on a crowd at a skate competition after winning a $5,000 bet against a friend, Tampa #2.6, Big Black’s eccentric Uncle Jerry in Mississippi #2.3 & Bobby Light #2.7, and the Bobby Light video shoot #2.7. But hands down the funniest episode of BOTH seasons is Meaty & Mini #2.1, where the guys pick out and take home the newest addition to their family: a miniature horse named — what else? — Mini Horse. I laughed myself to tears watching this episode. “It’s gold, Jerry, gold.”

Rob & Big – The Complete Season 1 & 2 (Uncensored) is 4 discs with all 16 episodes from both seasons 1 and 2 with the standard special features: deleted scenes, additional footage of Meaty, Mini, Uncle Jerry, a few skate tutorials, and the “Dirty Girl” music video. There is nothing too spectacular in the Special Features, but this DVD set isn’t about the extras — it’s about the show. Rob & Big isn’t a show setting out to prove anything. The guys don’t take the typical approach, or should I say they don’t do what you would expect a skateboarder from the Midwest to do when he gets rich at a young age and decides to live in Hollywood. They don’t go and party a lot and they don’t appear to be living “the lifestyle.” That’s not to say that they haven’t or they aren’t, but isn’t it refreshing that the creators don’t feel it vital enough to its success to make it the focal point of the show? Hmm… maybe MTV is, dare I say, finally starting to outgrow itself.

And there’s the rub.

Season 1: *** out of ****
Season 2: *** ½ out of ****
Special Features: ** out of ****