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.

169-170: Tropic Thunder, Lawless

169: Tropic Thunder

Anyone who loves Vietnam war movies (or movies in general) owes it to themselves to watch Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s hilarious spoof. Nothing is safe when Stiller gets his hands on it, it seems. Platoon, Apocalypse Now, the entire movie industry, everything gets its fair share of Stiller’s wrath. Because that’s primarily what Tropic Thunder is about: Stiller venting some cropped up frustration. His frustration with agents (Matthew McConaughey), producers (hilariously despicable Tom Cruise), directors (ever funny Steve Coogan) and most definitely the stars. He doesn’t shield himself from his own wrath. His character is a stupid action star, who decided he wanted an Oscar and played a retarded man in a misguided movie called Simple Jack, for which he is admonished by multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (an obvious jab at Russell Crowe), who himself decided to turn himself into a black man to get ready for his next role. I have watched Tropic Thunder several times now and it doesn’t cease to entertain me. There is so much to love here. So many great lines to quote (“I’m a lead farmer, motherfucker!”). I also recommend everybody to watch the brilliant making of documentary Rain of Madness, a parody of Hearts of Darkness, the fabulous documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. Tropic Thunder is one of those rare comedies that work on many levels: it is incredibly funny, painfully insightful and even surprisingly dramatic at times. I urge everybody to see it.

170: Lawless

John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, was one of my favorite movies from 2009. It showed me that this director was capable of creating a world that is terrifyingly real and menacing. Next he would go on to direct an extraordinary project: a short film based on the video game Red Dead Redemption, coincidentally one of the best video game experiences I have ever had. It is therefore not surprising that I was very anxious to see what Hillcoat would do next. It turned out it would be Lawless, a movie about the infamous Bondurant brothers (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke), a notorious gang of bootleggers who ran their operation in the mountains of Franklin County, Virginia during the Prohibition. That is, until Deputy Charles Rakes (Guy Pearce) turned up to clean the area. Supposedly Lawless is based on a true story about these three brothers who used the Prohibition to carve out a niche for themselves. This sounds noble, but in reality they were of course ruthless criminals when push came to shove. So were the law enforcement officials, who didn’t hesitate to crack some skulls to get their point across. Hillcoat doesn’t shy away from the violence these people have to perpetrate and endure and Lawless is because of that not stuff for viewers with a weak stomach. It is all framed beautifully and undeniably the work of a visionary director. There are, however, some holes in the story, but those didn’t really bother me that much. What compelled me were the excellent performances by just about the entire cast. This is by no means Hillcoat’s best movie (I have not yet seen The Proposition), but it is also not the worst movie of the year.

> IMDb

096: Body of Lies

This is the sixteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Halfway through the last decade Ridley Scott started making movies like crazy. He was making a movie every year. 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven was an epic swords-and-sandal drama, 2006’s A Good Year was a well-intentioned failure, 2007’s American Gangster was an urban period thriller and last in this binge is Body of Lies, Scott’s comment on the war in the Middle East, a thriller that is as intricate as it is foolish.

At the center of Body of Lies is Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a C.I.A. operative who works in the Middle East. He knows the people, speaks the language and gets results, but he seems to have doubts. He has lived with these people for so long he has begun to see them as more than just subjects on his missions. He even strikes up a relationship with a local beauty. This is all to the dismay of his handler back home in Virginia, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who wants to get results no matter what happens. Ferris is on the trail of a terrorist, who plans to do God knows what to the Western devils, and he gets help from a local businessman called Hani (mark Strong).

We are privy to every little detail that goes into setting up a mission like this, from inserting people in enemy organizations, creating a faux terrorist organization to lure the real terrorists out of their hiding spots and utilizing modern techniques combined with old-fashioned spying. Roger Ebert called it James Bond meets John Le Carre and I heartily agree with him. The things Ferris has to endure are way more than a human should be able to endure. He is tortured, he is bitten by dogs, he escapes explosions and so on and so on. And all the while keeping his cool about a lot of it. It is just a lot to take in and keep your suspension of disbelief under control.

While William Monahan’s screenplay, based on a book from David Ignatius, is very detailed and intricate with more twists and turns than a Formula 1 race track. As with Kingdom of Heaven, Monahan shows great respect for the Islamic faith and the way of life over there. He isn’t too keen on outside people coming in to tell people how to live their lives, which is exactly what the Americans in Body of Lies are doing. Meddling in local affairs is high on the agenda here and the shift in DiCaprio’s character is a sign that even Americans are maybe a little bit sick of all the meddling that is done in these countries. It is one thing to get rid of a dictator, it is another thing to dictate to people how they should live. But that’s another discussion.

Monahan writes all these nuances in his screenplay and Scott ran with it. The various parts are exciting: the intrigue, the action, the redemption, the deception and the love story. These would all be great subjects in their own right, but Scott never really manages to glue it all together. Body of Lies gets to where it is going at its own time and never really gets exciting. The acting is at a level you expect from a cast like this, while never being infused with enough spirit to keep you glued to the screen. That is a shame, because this is a story that needs to be told. There is another side to a war that often isn’t told at home by the ‘invading’ party in the conflict. Body of Lies had the opportunity to show people who the people they are trying to ‘educate’ really don’t want to be taught anything and just want to be left alone. There is a message here, if only it were told in a more compelling way.

> IMDb

029: We Are Wizards

I like documentaries that show you sides of pop culture you did not know were there. We Are Wizards is one of those docs. Director Josh Koury invites us to take a look at the world of Harry Potter fandom, but not the fandom where people sit in line for days in anticipation of the release of books or movies.

The focus of We Are Wizards is what people call Wizard Rock, or music based on the stories about Harry Potter. These fans feel the need to get on stage and perform music in bands like Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys and so forth. They perform in libraries and at festivals, and seem to be really popular. They sell dvd’s, t-shirts and some even have groupies. Hmmm, and I was totally unaware of this.

I am a Star Wars fan, but really a pretty solitary one. I hardly go to conventions, I don’t dress up and I certainly don’t think about being in a band based on Star Wars. So I have a hard time understanding the obsession these fans display. It seems Josh Koury feels the same, because he frequently veers off into other territory to fill out his 79 minute documentary.

He gets into the subject of a war the fans waged with Warner Bros because of Warner’s wish to protect their property at the cost of fandom. And he gets into the question whether Harry Potter incites children to take up witchcraft and subsequently ruin their innocent lives. Both of these issues are each deserving of a separate documentary, because frankly the novelty of Wizard Rock wears off pretty quick… and the music itself is really bad.

Koury meanders back and forth between his subjects and delivers a project that obviously has his affection, but isn’t executed very well. Come on, tell us more about the vigilante lady who thinks Harry Potter is witchcraft, now that is interesting (and infuriating).

> IMDb