189-193: Bruges, Cliffhanger, Trouble, Chernobyl, Instead

in-bruges

189: In Bruges

In Bruges looked like just another action movie to me. Even the involvement of one of my favorite actors, Brendan Gleeson, wasn’t enough to get me to watch it. But during the years following its initial release more and more people came out of the woodwork to confess their mistake in dismissing In Bruges in the manner I did. I decided to give in and give In Bruges a chance and what do you know… it is brilliant. So incredibly not what I was expecting. Central to the story are two British criminals who are sent to Bruges in Belgium to lay low for a while after a tragic accident. There they have to wait for their boss to call with instructions. What seems to be a regular crime story with two thugs spending time in one of the most dreamy cities in Europe turns into an existential fight for survival and redemption. There are a lot of great performances in In Bruges. Colin Farrell is brilliant as the petty criminal who acts more like a bored child than a professional hitman and Brendan Gleeson is masterful as ever as the hardened criminal who is trying to keep everything together somehow. Their chemistry starts to build throughout the movie to culminate in a sequence that is truly harrowing. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I loved it. See it.

cliffhanger

190: Cliffhanger

It was a Saturday night, I was tired, so I went and stood in front of my DVD cabinet to find a movie that wouldn’t challenge me one bit. The result was Cliffhanger, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) I had not seen in fifteen years or so. And with good reason, because this movie turned out to be even more dumb than I remembered. The screenplay is so incredibly full of holes and implausibilities that it took all the fun of the action out of it for me. I think the whole reason why I (and many with me) look back fondly on Cliffhanger is the opening sequence, which is as horrendously suspenseful as ever. If you have anything resembling vertigo I urge you to skip the opening sequence and pick up what happened there from the rest of the movie (that shouldn’t be too hard). When the screenplay turns out to be so incredibly dumb, is there still something to be enjoyed in Cliffhanger? Sure, the action is decent throughout the movie, the acting is deliciously over the top and the scenery is beautiful (actually shot in Italy, not Colorado). Cliffhanger is a clear example of just about every action movie made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: big brutish heroes taking on mindless groups of evil doers with lots of explosions and extravagant stunts. It’s just that sometimes one movie hits it out of the park and the other takes a walk. And yes I am talking about Die Hard being the slugger, not Cliffhanger.

trouble-with-the-curve

191: Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a sports movie of the most common denominator. And I so wanted this to be another Moneyball, a smart look at the business of baseball and what goes on behind the scenes of my favorite sport. But what I got was a melodramatic mess about an old baseball scout (Clint Eastwood) who doesn’t want to accept he is losing his grip on his job and his estranged daughter (Amy Adams) who wants to be close to her dad if only he wasn’t such an insufferable asshole. Trouble with the Curve is in fact the polar opposite of Moneyball. It goes out of its way to tell us that the new baseball (as seen in Moneyball and now used around the league) is much worse than the old school way of finding talent. Therefore everybody who has anything to do with computers and spreadsheets is presented as oafish and all the old guard is portrayed as lovable and eccentric. In addition to this incessant polarization the screenplay takes a turn for the worse when a telegraphed red herring from the first act is used to finish the movie in the cheapest way possible. During that first act of Trouble with the Curve I thought I was dealing with a movie that understood baseball, but it turned out it didn’t know anything about it at all. I guess I’ll have to grab my copy of Moneyball and erase Trouble with the Curve from my baseball loving brain.

chernobyl-diaries

192: Chernobyl Diaries

As far as useless found footage movies go Chernobyl Diaries is right up there with the worst of them. We are witness to a group of young people traveling around Europe and ending up in the Ukraine to participate in a tour of the area surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the most horrendous accident involving nuclear materials. Their focus is Pripyat, a village where everybody had to drop what they were doing to escape the evil that was spouting from the reactor. Now, supposedly, the radiation levels are low enough to go wandering around the village (which they aren’t by the way in real life). Of course their visit isn’t without peril, because when they want to leave the village they discover they are not alone, something has been left behind. Chernobyl Diaries comes from the brain of Oren Peli, who also fathered the Paranormal Activity series. As with so many other found footage crap movies, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t think it’s necessary to actually convincingly tell us a story that could be called found footage. The camera angles are all circumstantial and in no way believable like the pioneers (e.g. The Blair Witch Project) were. Let’s hope Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t spawn a load of sequels as Paranormal Activity did and still does. That would be truly disastrous.

you-instead

193: You Instead (Tonight You’re Mine)

Having been to quite a few music festivals in my younger days (wow, I sound old) I can get behind the vibe of You Instead (or Tonight You’re Mine, I’m not sure which is the right title), David Mackenzie’s latest feature. He actually filmed the movie at a music festival and that lends it a tremendous amount of goodwill. Goodwill that is much needed, since the screenplay is nearly devoid of anything interesting. It is a love story about two musicians, one British and one American, who are handcuffed to each other by some mysterious festival patron. They will have to spend the rest of the weekend, their gigs and day-to-day activities chained to each other. Of course something beautiful blooms between the two of them and everything will be all right in the end. You see, nothing special. The charm of You Instead comes from the images and situations Mackenzie chooses. The drunk, muddy, stoned get-together around a campfire, the sweaty tents filled with thumping music and those quiet mornings when you try to think of a reason why you drank so much the night before (believe me, I’ve been there). This was actually the only reason why I continued watching You Instead… nostalgia. At least You Instead has a lot more life to it than Mackenzie’s last feature Perfect Sense, which I found excruciatingly boring and completely forgettable.

119: Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

I have to admit than when I was a kid I was more of a De La Soul fan then a fan of A Tribe Called Quest. Of course I knew about them, and could recite the lyrics to their best known hits (I Left My Wallet in El Segundo, Bonita Applebum and of course Can I Kick It?), but I never got into their records for some inexplicable reason. That’s why I love Michael Rapaport’s documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest so much.

It transported me back to that time when I wouldn’t leave the house without my walkman and cassette tapes to listen to my favorite music as much as possible. It also educated me about a piece of music history I was not entirely familiar with. If you would ask me, that is the perfect combination for a documentary: recognition and discovery. It opened my eyes to the enormous impact these guys had on the sound of hip hop and their background. Their connection to my heroes from way back when, De La Soul, was also new to me. I knew they were part of the same music scene, but not that their proximity was so close.

Director Michael Rapaport, more known as an actor in e.g. Beautiful Girls, spends a large part of his documentary to explaining where A Tribe Called Quest came from, what their influence was on hip hop and what the relationships were inside the group. This is all fascinating and exciting, but it isn’t until we come to more recent times that the real drama starts to play out.

Together with Rapaport, we are witness to the affairs that transpired backstage during the 2008 reunion tour. We learn about Phife Dawg’s life threatening struggle with diabetes and the crippling effect this would have on internal relationships within the band. Rapaport doesn’t judge. He let’s the guys tell their story and it is up to the audience to take sides or leave the struggle for what it is and enjoy the groundbreaking music these guys made. I sure as heck will be getting their albums to make up for my omissions in the past.

> IMDb

052: Hustle & Flow

I love the raw power of creativity, whether it be a painter painting, a film maker creating a movie or musicians recording their next great piece. I just love to see people with extraordinary gifts expressing something I can not possibly match. That’s why I loved Hustle & Flow so much back in 2005. It showed that there are people out there who, if they set their minds to it, can create something beautiful.

Surrounded by the slums of Memphis, pimp DJay tries to make a living off women who turn tricks for him. With a name like DJay he is destined to become something else, isn’t he? He has this urge to get his word out. In a moment of serendipity he gets a small keyboard from a junkie, which sets him on a quest to put his rhymes to music. Then he meets an old friend from school who wants to desperately do something else then record church gospels for a change. With the help of some other people DJay records his first songs, but it remains a question if this will help him escape from the everyday troubles of being a pimp in the rough parts of Memphis, Tennessee.

Back in 2005 I was madly in love with this movie. I saw it a couple of times and especially loved the scenes where DJay and his friends are creating their magic. The songs they craft are addictive (and Oscar-winning) and will stick in your head for days. It’s hard out here for a pimp may not be the most politically correct song out there, but, man, does that hook drive itself into your skull. Mostly thanks to the wonderful vocals of Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, who recorded their own vocals for the track.

The rest of the scenes built around these recording sessions are still powerful after all these years. Back in 2005 I wrote: “Brewer’s film is a sweaty affaire with a group of people who, in spite of their questionable work ethics, get under your skin and won’t leave you unaffected.” I stand by that comment. There are some things that could have been handled a little more delicately, like some of the serendipitous encounters and situations that keep the movie flowing (sorry, no pun intended), but that doesn’t diminish the power of the performances of the great cast. I dare you not to be horrified by the scene where DJay throws one of his women, including kid, out on the street. You want to hate that guy so much in that moment, but Howard manages to transcend that and show us his humane side in addition to the monster that he has become. All problems aside, I think this is still a wonderful movie about the power of dreaming, which should be seen by all.

> IMDb

037: Footloose

I’m a child of the ’80s. My first real memory of going to the movies by myself was when Back to the Future was released in the brand new cinema in my hometown (the first ever cinema there). Just the year before Footloose was released, thus I missed that, because going to the big city to watch a movie was not something done lightly back then.

I caught Footloose much later on home video and I loved it. I have seen it many times since. I know how corny it is, but there is something there that makes all the cheesy dialogue and the questionable dancing seem cool. The notion that a remake could reproduce that feeling now seemed ludicrous to me. But what do I know, I am a child of the ’80s.

I must say that the remake of Footloose isn’t have as bad as I wanted it to be. Director Craig Brewer, who made the excellent Hustle & Flow, really took this one to heart and tried his best to create something meaningful. It follows the story of the original fairly close. A bunch of kids die after a party, strict laws are enforced, a kid from the big city arrives and shakes everything up. Nothing new there. Dennis Quaid takes on John Lithgow’s role as the stern reverend and delivers a fine job, Andie McDowell is his silent partner.

The roles played by the kids are a little bit less solid. Big city kid Ren is played by newcomer Kenny Wormald and his love interest, the reverend’s daughter, is played by Julianne Hough, who before this could be seen in Burlesque. That’s where the trouble starts. Although these two certainly know their moves, they have a background in dancing, and acting is not really their thing. Wormald hams it up with a horrible Boston accent, while the rest of the cast sports a variety of stereotypical redneck accents. It borders on offensive. There is never any chemistry between the leads, so it becomes really hard to root for them when the movie starts to take itself a little bit too serious.

Then there’s the dancing. I don’t remember the dancing in the original being as provocative as in this little town. Everybody bumps and grinds like it’s nobody’s business. Seriously, when a town has been on lockdown for three years, you might begin to wonder where everybody learned to dance this good. This town is littered with people who can dance on a level that would make contestants on So You Want To Be A Dancer (or whatever these shows are called) jealous. It must be said that it takes quite a skilled director to make linedancing as dynamic as Brewer does here. It almost wants you want to start linedancing… almost…

With all that said, I still had a fun time watching Footloose. In all its over the top goofy goodness there can be found a fun movie with some nice dance sequences. It will never reach the cult status that the original still holds today, but then again what movie remake does. On the other hand I don’t belong to this generation of kids and I admit not having seen the original in quite some time, so it might suck.

> IMDb