Saturday, October 31, 2009

Incipient Fascism

By Chase Kahn

Without question the most anticipated movie of this holiday/awards-season rush, for me, is Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon". Stuart Klawans' New York Times 10.30 piece on the film addresses already raised questions about whether Haneke's latest film, a black-and-white period film set in a 1914 village in Northen German just before the onset of World War I, is a precursor to Nazism.

According to the piece, an early voice-over offers the advice that his story might "clarify some things that happened later in our country." Of course, Haneke, like any great filmmaker, offers vague, halfway answers to the questions, but from the majority of reviewers, historians and the like, the film is certainly an attempt to portray this 1914 German Protestant community as an insight into the rise of fascism.

"The White Ribbon" won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and opens on 12.30 in NY and LA, 01.29 in my neck of the woods.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: 'An Education' [A-]

By Chase Kahn

After playing at Sundance at the beginning of the year and every film festival henceforth, gushing about Lone Scherfig's An Education seems irrelevant and faint. But this is a tremendous film and in such a strong year for women filmmakers around the world, the Danish dame Scherfig has made a calculated and sophisticated work set in the burgeoning era when women were beginning to question their cultural boundaries.

It's such a quaint and classy film, jazzy and fashionable, funny and truthful. Carey Mulligan plays the 16-year old Jenny, caught between a life of studies and monotony or romance and maturity when she meets a cheeky and personable rich middle-age adventurer and globe-trotter named David (Peter Sarsgaard).

Unsatisfied with the norm and expectation of attending a university, Jenny sees the staleness and lack of opportunities for women in 1960's suburban London and falls impulsively head-over-heels for David's charm and sophistication.

As a lover of French cinema and music, and compassionately fed up with the stereotypical lifestyle of the 60's well-educated woman, Jenny becomes attracted to not only David, but the escapism and against-the-system appeal of marrying a rich, attractive playboy. She sees herself in her English teacher, an equally smart and book-savvy Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), and describes her life after graduation from Cambridge as a walking death.

"Action builds character", says Jenny to David in his swooning dark red sportscar, and she's completely right -- in another sense.

The entire cast could be described with whatever remarkable superlative you want to throw at it. Mulligan is a revelation, a breakthrough role and a surefire Best Actress nomination will be the result, that much is certain. Alfred Molina as the unsuspecting, well-intending father is brilliant, as well as Emma Thompson as the school headmaster, but her few scenes shouldn't be enough to warrant or gain any serious awards traction. I'm stunned that Peter Sarsgaard, as the gaudy yet sweetly puppy-eyed David, hasn't been more seriously considered for his work.

I also can't go without mentioning the luscious, cafe cozy photography of John de Borman -- giving An Education a pleasurable, but identifiable personality.

An Education is as thorough a coming-of-age drama as you're likely to find, and with its 1962 setting (not unlike AMC's similarly themed "Mad Men") it portrays an era in the midst of a cultural revolution, whether the characters know it or not. Come to think of it, Jenny is not unlike Peggy Olsen, played by Elisabeth Moss on "Mad Men". At the end of the day, both women are modern counter-culture thinkers stuck in an unprogressive age. This film could represent the last story of that era, and it's beautifully conceived.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: 'The Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans' [B+]

By Chase Kahn

Nicolas Cage is officially off of my shitlist because Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a wildly outrageous and schizo-funny black comedy featuring the 45-year old actor, who has wallowed around in a mess of bad films for the better part of this decade, gives his best performance since Spike Jonze's Adaptation ('02).

As the bad cop with a serious drug and gambling addiction, Cage is pure energy as he slips into this raging psychopath and channels all of this bad boy charisma and lets loose as if to atone for all of his straight-laced, ho-hum, paycheck action roles. As his character, Terrence McDonagh, spirals into this hole of debts, drug-smuggling and unsolved homicides, it's not Herzog's intention to bring on anxiety or fear -- in fact, it tends to bring out the best in McDonagh and the film, resulting in a ironic, comedic and surreal tone.
Val Kilmer shows up from time-to-time as a bad-mouthed partner, but he's limited both in screen-time and relevancy, although strangely I wanted more of him. Eva Mendes, reuniting with Cage after Ghost Rider, plays the "girlfriend" prostitute with a drug-itch problem herself.

The whole package, set in post-Katrina New Orleans (think fall of '05) is a wink-wink, drug-induced coma of bad deeds and intentions with an ugly direct-to-video sheen. There are imaginary iguanas, dancing souls, oxygen-gasping grandmas with revolvers pressed to their foreheads -- this thing should become a big 2 am, pass-the-joint cult classic.

Herzog, a renowned filmmaker and documentarian, most known for his 70's/80's masterpieces Aguirre: The Wrath of God ('72), Nosferatu ('79) and Fitzcarraldo ('82) is operating on a level of psychological hell and hysteria unseen even in the crazed presence of Klaus Kinski.
The Bad Lieutenant isn't one of his best works, but it's certainly more lively and inspired than Rescue Dawn ('07) in a ugly, provoking, auteuristic kind of way. It's a ballsy, gutsy, cuckoo niche film that seems to have brought Nicolas Cage back from the realm of the dead. Not unlike Alex Proyas' Knowing, here is a crazy Cage film that works.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bourne Zone

By Chase Kahn

I can't listen to this trailer for Paul Greengrass' Green Zone because I don't have any speakers hooked up in my new location, but it looks and feels exactly like a continuation of the Bourne franchise migrated to Iraq, for what its worth.

I've never been a giant fan of the Bourne series, if only because by the time Ultimatum rolled along, I felt like the series was just spinning its wheels and regurgitating the same plot beats, crescendos and formulas to death.

Of course, with Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass, with his notoriously identifiable filming techniques, and Matt Damon in the lead role, it's not hard to imagine why. Green Zone was delayed until 2010 by Universal and is now slated to release on 03.12.10 in what is quickly becoming the most exciting first three months of any movie year I can recall due to lack of studio funding for p&a, the writers' strike, etc. -- thank you, dwindling movie economy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Fat Kid at Kickball

By Chase Kahn

Alejandro Amenabar's Agora, a lavish Roman-Egypt period piece and star role for Rachel Weisz, still doesn't have a U.S. distributor and its window for a release late this year has pretty much completely been taken off the table. So what's the deal? No one wants to take this on for a measly $3-4 million or so -- likely less?

If it were given a platform release in late November into early December, I bet it would pick up some steam, especially if Rachel Weisz's performance is as good as some have said coming out of Cannes or Toronto. Now, if a deal goes through, it would likely be release Q1 or Q2 of next year, but let's be realistic, this thing looks like it's going straight to DVD. Sad.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"He Probably Went to Hell"

The only redeeming scene in an otherwise silly and underwhelming film is this early encounter between Paul Newman's Roy Bean and Anthony Perkins' Rev. LaSalle from John Huston's The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean ('72).

It's such a strange, dark and surreal 10 minutes, certainly more in-tune than the 100 minutes or so that come afterwards. At this point, I thought Huston was in Beat the Devil territory with a half-serious, half-satirical western, but mostly this thing just flat out doesn't work.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: 'The Baader Meinhof Complex' [B]

By Chase Kahn

Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex, quite fittingly described as the birth of modern terrorism, is the story of the Red Army Faction (RAF), who began terrorizing West Germany in the early 1970's to combat a climate of both global and local imperialism.

A 2008 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, (released in the U.S. this year) it charts the formation of the RAF through its three key members, Ulrich Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), Andreas Baader (Moritz Bliebtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and, in the end, their influence on future generations of juvenile drop-outs and the like.

It has been congratulated and rewarded for its refusal to condemn or champion the acts of the RAF in its depictions. The first half is a seductively rebellious political-brusier, with our revolutionaries and their wigs, aviator glasses and hip-hugging jeans committing acts of pre-meditated, yet seemingly random bouts of terrorism.

Then in the second half, it takes on a more reflective tone as our heroes begin to question and witness the outcome or results of their now-condemnable actions (as they share a confined prison cell). It is in these scenes where The Baader Meinhof Complex both stirs and underwhelms in its arms-length approach. It's an extremely well-acted and well-crafted film, compulsively watchable the way a great documentary or historical account would be, but I didn't feel the desired impact by the time it was over. It's a silenced handgun -- it gets the job done, but it doesn't resonate very loudly.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Invictus" Poster

By Chase Kahn

Clint Eastwood's Invictus (Warner Brothers, 12.11.09), the Nelson Mandela biopic starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, has a poster and it pretty much sucks. It screams of faux-inspirational hooplah with Morgan Freeman's profile, engulfed in a blinding light as if to represent a biblical figure of some sort, looks phony. After Gran Torino was the surprise hit of January last year, why not slap his name all over it? Instead, he's relegated to a Tom Hooper or a Brad Anderson.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I saw Duncan Jones' Moon at the Dallas AFI Film Festival in April and thought it was pretty okay. To me, it's just a visually compelling film with a very interesting Sam Rockwell performance to say the least (plus Clint Mansell's score is really good in places), but I found it slight and too duct-taped together. Despite some spectacular lunar ingenuity, it doesn't have an original bone in it's body.

So I was more than a little surprised to see such enthusiastic remarks for the film throughout the summer as it saw an extended, popular art-house run. The Blu-ray comes out 12.29.

Monday, October 19, 2009


By Chase Kahn

Mira Nair's Amelia (Fox Searchlight, 10.24) hasn't appealed to me in the slightest every since the trailer debuted sometime this summer. I hate the dramatization and tall-tale telling ("Why do you want to fly?"..."To break free", etc.) of these kinds of big-budget biopics. Plus Hilary Swank has been pegged for a Best Actress nomination since Febraury, which means that she'll be nominated regardless of the performance.

We have our first reviews from The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The former, raving about Hilary Swank's performance, comparing it to Jamie Foxx in Ray and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, blah, blah.
Justing Chang at Variety, however, was pummeled by it:

"To say that "Amelia" never gets off the ground would be an understatement; it barely makes it out of the hangar. Hansomely mounted, yet dismayingly superficial, Mira Nair's film offers snazzy aerial photography and inspirational platitudes in lieu of insight into Amelia Earhart's storied life and high-flying career."

There is also a general assumption that the film doesn't totally work due to late screenings and notice from Fox Searchlight, perhaps in an attempt to guard it somewhat. Think of it what you will.

Welcome to January

By Chase Kahn

I swear to you, this trailer for The Spy Next Door about a special agent (Jackie Chan) in charge of babysitting a house of annoying kids is one of the worst I've ever seen. I'd rather watch G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra 400 times than sit through this thing once.

Sprouting up from the genes of Kindergarten Cop and The Pacifier, this looks to achieve a whole new level of parental cruelty. Just look at the supporting cast of spares they've rounded up for this thing (Billy Ray freakin' Cyrus!).

"Wild Things" Redux

By Chase Kahn

Reading around the internet this morning after Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are pulled in $32.5 million over the weekend, I found this highly entertaining review/dissection of the film by David Poland at The Hot Blog, which brings up a fascinating (and mostly accurate) interpretation of this multi-layered film.

"Simply put, it is a great film about divorce and its effect on children of this generation...The psychological positioning of each of the "wild things" on the island is distinct (and distinctly blurred when appropriate), starting with Max's father, Carol (James Gandolfini), who is no longer a central figure in Max's life, but who once promised -- by an inscription on a globe -- that Max could rule the world. Dad Lied."

"Mom, embodied by KW (Lauren Ambrose) here, is the realist in this family and is trying to give her truth to her boy while still loving him so much that she has to fight off her instinct to indulge a more simplistic kind of protection of his innocence."

In my 10.16 review, I saw the fantasy sections of the film to be a more general embodiment of Max's world and the spectrum of emotion and confusion that he experiences on a daily basis, but this is certainly a legitimate and fascinating reading of the film.

Why the thought that Carol represented Max's now absent father never crossed my mind during the first viewing is mind-boggling to me as it's so obvious now that I think about it. Of course, the gist of the film still remains the same -- that Max's trip to the fantasy land of the wild things is a re-imagining of his own psyche and the world around him in a way that's more relatable and identifiable to him.

I love Poland's description of Where the Wild Things Are as a psychological Wizard of Oz. You have the opening "reality" segment of Max playing in the snow, arguing with his Mother, etc. before he takes the trip to "Oz", only to return a more educated and renowned person.

Poland feels that the whole idea of the film, what it's leading to, is to Max's forgiveness to himself and to his mother for the divorce. Whatever the case, it's about learning and understanding how to grow up and how the frequently confounding and head-spinning emotions of adults and kids alike are constantly up in the air and unintelligible to the uninitiated.

There is just so much to chew on that I'm stunned at how many people are simply turned off by the "glumness" of it all. Saying that is lacks "narrative drive" is a concession that this viewer simply didn't get or didn't want to. Think of how rare it is to have a film that's based on a sentence-a-page kids book turned into a work of art, misunderstood by so many people already. One of the two or three very best films of the year.

I ate breakfast the other day and while waiting for a table, noticed the amount of children and their mothers who were bickering and arguing amongst eachother. "They need to go see Where the Wild Things Are", I said to myself.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

'Che' on 01.19.10

Review: 'Law Abiding Citizen' [C+]

By Chase Kahn

Director F. Gary Gray, with all of his mustered machismo brutality and combustible set pieces, is back and he has the judicial system in his sights with Law Abiding Citizen. Swooping flyover shots of the William Penn bronze statue sitting atop Philadelphia’s City Hall are filmed with a seemingly discerning eye while judges and prosecutors alike are depicted as flamboyantly assertive and dishonest.

This is an oppressive film, with its industrial color palette, clanging shackles and flood of legal terminology. If you could smell a film, Law Abiding Citizen would smell like a musty rod-iron fence. But wait until the slimy politicians and self-preserving district attorneys start roaming the halls of steel-caged thugs who aren’t any more animalistic and unlawful than the prosecutors who put them there. As they speak, you can even see their corruptness and indecency through the cold, wintry air – that is until they receive a new inmate, Clyde Shelton.

Clyde (Gerard Butler) is a father and a husband who is the victim of a random break-in, which brings about the death of his wife and daughter at the hands of two brutes. The prosecutor in this case, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), in an effort to guarantee a conviction, makes a deal with one of the two murderers who is now a cooperating witness and will testify in court against the other. So we have two murderers – one gets the death penalty, one gets off in three years.

Outside the courthouse, in front of a sea of photographers, Nick shakes the witness’ hand in the view of a sheepish and bewildered Clyde, who has just witnessed the injustice of the legal system first-hand. The fact that Nick was unwilling to go to court and get a conviction for both men because of insubstantial evidence, despite it being the absolute truth, makes it all the harder for Clyde to swallow. Fast-forwarding ten years, the film quickly becomes an amoral revenge-kick before switching gears completely (to its credit) into a somewhat rational undressing of the American judicial system through the mind games of the now imprisoned, yet still mystifyingly dangerous Clyde Shelton. “I’ll bring the whole system down on your head”, he says to the wide-eyed and frustrated Nick, “it’s gonna be biblical”.

The fundamental problem with Law Abiding Citizen is that it’s a film that wants to toe the morality line and do it under the guise of a slick package, but it simply doesn’t have what it takes under the hood. Our two protagonists are given bland, lifeless dialogue to just throw back-and-forth while the filmmaking is far too routine to overcome the lack of viable substance and certainty. Compounding matters are the surprisingly flat and underwhelming performances of not only the supporting cast but also the two main stars.

Gerard Butler (300, The Ugly Truth) is just plainly miscast here as an unbelievable portrait of a grieving father/husband-turned-vigilante. He’s too rough and prickly with his lisp and toned-physique – the fact that I never bought him as this “wounded soul” could not be compensated for by button-down shirts and raincoats, much to the filmmakers’ surprise. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, looks like he needed a warm cup of coffee to the face. Supporting players and familiar faces like Colm Meaney and Bruce McGill are almost too ideal for their roles while female counterparts like Leslie Bibb (Iron Man) as an understudy lawyer to the district attorney and Viola Davis (Doubt) as the no-nonsense Mayor are hopelessly derivative.

I do appreciate what the film is trying to do here, but it’s often too non-committal, meandering and preposterous. When Clyde’s secret, or rather how he does what he does, is revealed, it’s both a letdown and a shot to the film’s already crumbling credibility. When it’s over, we get the feeling that Clyde’s goal could have been obtained through simpler means and spared us the lecture.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Review: 'Where the Wild Things Are' [A]

By Chase Kahn

Masquerading as a family-friendly fluff piece of children's adventure and escapism, Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are will likely surprise a few misinformed people - or kids. Of course, it appeared from the earliest stills to the trailer, set to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up", that this wasn't your average 'kids' movie.

The director, Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), who notably went through some well-chronicled troubles throughout the production, has made a film that feels completely and utterly his own - that is, indistincly reminiscent of his previous works. (The most recent being over 7 years ago).

Credit must also be given to novelist Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonze himself, as the adapted screenplay of Maurice Sendak's 1963 children's book is inflated into a feature film that more closely resembles a work of art than a glorified flip-book. If Dr. Seuss could only have been so lucky.

Beginning with a handheld shot, which looks strikingly like a home video, we see Max (Max Records) wrestling with the family dog, from the top of the zig-zag stairs down to the hardwood floors. His enthusiasm and pre-pubescent aggressiveness almost appears to be almost hurting the dog - yet the grip on Max's half-nelson appears to be tightening up, his awareness seemingly untapped.

And such is the story with young Max, an adventurous, playful, creative and combative boy who, like anyone else his age, is hopelessly selfish and unreasonable in his youthful endeavors. We see him build a snow fort by himself and talk to a fence, which seems to be the only thing that will obey his unruly commands. Although even it must recieve a kick or two before submitting.

It is in these early scenes that help establish the character of Max in the real world - what he's like, what his relationship with his mother (Catherine Keener), his sister and even his dog is all about. One night, when a particularly trivial disagreement, or apparent bout of jealousy ensues between Max and his mother, he flees to the land of the "Wild Things".

There, the creatures (who are artfully and ingeniously rendered using mostly giant costumes with CG expressions) run the gamut of human emotion as their behavior, touchiness and feelings come through during the numerous tasks that they perform or partake in under the rule of their "king", Max. Almost immediately, we are drawn to the similarities between Max's world back home and here on this island where wild things roam free. The difference is that here, Max gets to witness the frightening hostility and fragile psyches of the beasts from a more observant perspective and in a place that's more readily relatable to him.

It's a beautiful parable about childhood and growing up, but it succeeds and surpasses all others before it because it faces the truth and it speaks honestly with minimal candy-coating. It says that children, especially young boys, are unconsciously cruel and ill-equipped to handle or understand the motives and feelings of themselves or those around them. Where the Wild Things Are isn't about solving these problems (we get the feeling that Max isn't done with his disagreements with his mother), but it's about coming to grips with them and, in the end, understanding. The film does not celebrate the wonders of childhood, it exposes the troubles of it.

Busy Friday

By Chase Kahn

I'm off to see Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are at 10:00 am this morning followed (hopefully) by F. Gary Gray's Law Abiding Citizen at 12:25, which I'm covering for The Film Nest. Then I have high school football duty at 5:00 and have to find time to write two reviews (one for the site, one for the blog). It's half-exciting, half-overwhelming.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Tree of Life" Delayed

By Chase Kahn

Terence Malick's Tree of Life was tentatively scheduled to come out this Christmas, but the decades-spanning epic from the director of Days of Heaven ('73) and The New World ('05) will be pushed back until next year, according to Anne Thompson at indieWIRE, echoing the sediments of Appartion studio head Bob Berney.

Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn and appears to have that same kind of Days of Heaven-depression era wheat-field-and-overalls vibe to it. It's also reportedly supposed to have some scenes shot in the IMAX format tracing back to the evolution of dinosaurs (?). Whatever the hell it is, we'll have to wait for it until next year, it seems. Thompson speculates that the film will play at Cannes '10, which would make sense if it's ready.

Trailer: 'The Edge of Darkness'

By Chase Kahn

Martin Campbell's The Edge of Darkness (Warner Brothers, 01.29.10) marks the return of Mel Gibson to the big screen, or rather, on the big screen - his first appearance in seven years. I can't say that it looks like any big deal, or that it looks any better than those French-directed vigilante stinkers like Taken or the upcoming From Paris With Love, but with the cast and Bill Monahan (The Departed) writing the script, it should be pretty decent.

I like how it has this Baltimore outdoors-y pine tree feel to it instead of Parisian euro cars and luxury yachts. As long as the ridiculous factor is toned down a bit, January-revenge thrillers can be handled with care and come out alright.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'In This Our Life' (1942)

By Chase Kahn

John Huston made this juicy melodrama, In This Our Life ('42) for Warner Brothers after the success of his acclaimed debut The Maltest Falcon ('41). It's a blatantly different film for the director in that it bears all the marks of a William Wyler or Edmund Goulding potboiler with its female-dominant cast and Max Steiner musical cues.

Bette Davis plays her usual Jezebel anti-lady, this time with excessive and gratuitous flamboyancy and greed - as such is required for the character of Stanley Kingsmill, a befuddling and selfish daughter of a dwindling former factory owner and sister to the graceful and moralistic Roy (Olivia de Havilland).

The film is basically about this simple fact that Stanley is a wreckless, wretched and confused soul who seems bent on destroying those around her, whether she means it or not, until she can attain happiness or a suitor for her unquenchable lust for money and possessions.

For me, Davis has never been better than in William Wyler's Jezebel ('38), or at least in the opening 40 minutes or so before it turns slightly off course and becomes a bit too saintly and reverent of a film. She's never been captured as so cruely attractive in that red dress, tight-lipped way than in those opening scenes.

In This Our Life ('42) sees her in more of a crazed, maniacal and one-note performance, which is not an indictment at all, just a simple statement of fact and one of the reasons why the film doesn't completely work.

Holding it together is Olivia de Havilland, easily my favorite actress of the early studio system along with her sister, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh. Throughout the 40's, after the famous de Havilland decision, in which the strong-willed actress fought on behalf of the Screen Actors Guild to gain rights over the studios when casting for productions, de Havilland seemed to be determined to erase her stereotype as a damsel-in-distress opposite Errol Flynn in the late 30's.

With roles in In This Our Life ('42), The Snake Pit ('48) and The Heiress ('49), see did just that - winning two Academy Awards in a four-year stretch.

"Public Enemies" on Blu 12/8

By Chase Kahn

Michael Mann's Public Enemies will be out on Blu-ray on 12.08 in this 2-disc set, but I'm having a hard time digesting this cover art with its pink/red titles. I'm curious to see what's under the slip cover since this picture very clearly appears to be just that.
You can read my review here. If it weren't for the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, we're looking at my favorite film of the year.

Blu-Ray Catch-up

By Chase Kahn

I've been watching a lot of bad movies of Blu-ray lately, because, well, that's what Blu-ray is for - giving you an excuse to watch movies you otherwise wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Plus, it's actually a lot of fun watching bad movies that you expect to be bad. I get off on it like I'm sure Simon Cowell gets off on 300 lb. cows trying to sing Kelly Clarkson.

David S. Goyer's The Unborn (2009) D
This January horror drop-off is ludicrously awful. It's so bad that, like other reviewers have mentioned, it's almost unclear if we're supposed to laugh or squirm, so the majority of the running-time falls into this unclear haze of indifference. It's not even the best movie of 2009 that features the presence of a dybbuk.

Sean McGinley's The Great Buck Howard (2009) C

This is such a minor and innocuous film, which is a shame, because it has a nice little cast (Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, John Malkovich), but it ultimately goes absolutely nowhere, kind of like this review.

Iain Softley's Inkheart (2009) C+

You know what? Not terrible. It's a rather odd British-y family fantasy movie, once again based on a children's book, but it doesn't even touch terrible with the exception of its very odd set design which has all kinds of continuity issues. Nevertheless, with the exception of Brendan Frasier, the cast is pretty good and it ends up being a decent sit because it doesn't try very hard. It's like the anti-Golden Compass.

Andy Fickman's Race to Witch Mountain (2009) C-

I don't know why I watched this. It continues to trend of The Rock playing the tough machismo badass stuck in a kids movie. It's essentially a road/chase film with surprisingly little humor. It does have decent production values, with real car chases, and Carlo Gugino is in it, but it still blows. The biggest problem I had with it was that The Rock's character, an ex-con, was really obsessed with Bullitt.

Renny Harlin's 12 Rounds D+
The New Orleans/post-Katrina setting actually gives the film an edge, but from the acting all the way to the swiss-cheese script, this is a mess. John Cena and his Tom Cruise in "Tropic Thunder" bear-claw meathooks are so distracting, I almost missed the glaring plot holes. We also get inadequate, power-hungry federal agents in this film, too, because there aren't enough of those in this world. The final scene in the helicopter is the stupidest thing I've ever seen and the film is way too long considering it's a rip-off of every Bruce Willis, Keanu Reeves 90's action movie. It would be a good drinking game to take a shot to every reference to "Speed" and "Die Hard With a Vengeance".

Monday, October 12, 2009


By Chase Kahn

Even though it's a significantly shorter and abridged version of John Woo's Red Cliff, I'm still excited for the Magnolia U.S. release (which is part of the studios 6-shooter film series) which will finally reach larger markets around 11.20.

The Chinese-language 280-minute epic was originally released in its native land in two parts (Part I in 2008 and Part II in 2009) as the most expensive Asian-financed film to date ($80m US). It has since gone on to become the highest grossing film in Mainland China's history ($124m US), although clearly benefitting from two seperate revenue streams.

Generally described by a handful of U.S. critics as an elaborate and expansive eye-popping dreamscape with little substance elsewhere, it's hard to believe that the problems don't stem from this significantly dwarfed version - 150 minutes from 280 minutes.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

'Serious' Saturday

By Chase Kahn

My Saturday was full of football, driving and a back-to-back Friday-to-Saturday double-viewing of The Coen Brother's A Serious Man, easily the most fully realized and expertly crafted film of the last two years, really. I doubt Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon or Lone Scherfig's An Education could top it, but I'd be willing to find out.

On the surface, it's a sly, dry black comedy about a guy who can't catch a break, with the Coen's usual affinity for full-on wayward geographical immersion and cultural typecasting. But underneath, this is a scathing, black-hearted takedown of the passive, noncombatant followers to the philosophical fundamentals of faith, destiny and truth.

It's a fable, or illustrative tool, used to heighten, dramatize and question the metaphysical motives for hardship, tragedy and everyday fatigue. It's subject, Larry (Michael Stuhlburg), a harmless everyman father and husband, endures a cavalcade of godly interventions and seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, sending him scrambling for just cause, heavenly refuge, and more importantly, for answers. The Coens (and Hashem) are hardly forthcoming in their revelations.

A Serious Man just operates on such a level of thorough assuredness that's uncanny even for a Coen Brothers film. It frequently resonates louder and more honestly than the eerily similar philosophical yarn in No Country For Old Men - a superb film in its own right.

Any film that's able to pick out a faith-loving, "rest easy" punching bag and give it about ten good bloody-knuckle uppercuts, followed by a roundhouse kick, and does it in a generally humorous and surgical way, deserves my utmost respect.

It's about what happens when the cards are stacked against you with no outlet in sight and what it all means - how to interpret it. "Why me?", the film asks, just before it slaps you on the wrist for even asking.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: 'A Serious Man' [A]

By Chase Kahn

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is as resonant, thought-provoking and self-assured as any film that the hard-working duo have embarked upon. It's a perfectly calculated kind of marriage from everybody involved that doesn't miss a step.
I found it shockingly honest, up-front and truthful in its philosophical and existential overtones, which give each and every scene more insight, depth and ingenuity than the one before it until the film, in the end, just throws up its hands.

After a crazy opening prologue, the film immerses the viewer in this freshly-mowed, brown and beige 60's Jewish Minnesota suburb. Anyone who has seen Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Miller's Crossing or O, Brother Where Art Thou? knows that no one captures the look, feel and aura of cultural and hidden geographical environment like the Coen Brothers.

A Serious Man has this tangible hairy-chested, gold chain, big-eared, short-sleeve-and-tie acuteness to it that only they could so naturally bring to screen. Their perceptiveness to different accents and vocal intonations and mannerisms is also unchecked and easily identifiable here in the many standout and key supporting performances. Especially those by Simon Helberg and Fred Melamed in a largely inconspicuous cast.

The whole bloodline, rhythm and beat to A Serious Man is the idea that when bad things start happening and you can't catch a break and your life is being beaten down into two or three things that need mending over here and two or three more over there to the point where you just can't catch up -- what do you do then? How do you interpret the things that happen to you? What does it all mean? After watching the film, you'll have the same questions, but not all of the answers.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Extreme Makeover: Criterion Edition

I'm not sure what happened, but I just checked the Criterion website to find that the cover-art for Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale has been changed. The old cover was middling, uncolorful and dispiriting, but I totally dig this new re-design for the Blu-ray/DVD release due out on 12/1.

The only eye-sore on here is that the title covers up the Criterion "C" logo in the top left, why not move it down to 3/4 up the tree? Oh well, the point is that Criterion, after several very mediocre cover designs, have restored my faith a little bit - my life is practically riding on what they come up with for Steven Soderbergh's Che ('08), due out in January of next year.

G.I. Blow

I actually can't wait to pick up the Blu-ray (11/3) on Wednesday or Thursday from Netflix and just revel in its campiness and the Stephen Sommers zest of leather-bound vixens and square-jawed, beret-wearing military figures. However, something struck me about the cover art for the Blu-ray - why not throw Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller up there holding big guns in their most revealing and tight-fitting outfits? Whose going to see Rachel Nichols or Marlon Wayans and throw down $25 bucks?

So, Where Are They?

By Chase Kahn

Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are opens in 8 days (Warner Bros., 10.16.09), yet I haven't heard a thing about it. Usually with big-time, highly anticipated studio films, you'll hear rumors and read blogs about test screenings, guild screenings, so forth - but nada, nothing. That is with the exception of this Emanuel Levy review from his website:

"Facing the greatest artistic challenge of his career to date, one that has taken half a decade and a budget north of $80 million to execute, Jonze has set out to make an adult movie about childhood for both young and mature viewers, rather than a children's movie per se; the movie, like the book, does not talk down to young people.

Since the nominal text is rather simple, the poignancy of the film resides in its rich subtext, and what is shown and implied but not stated. By necessity, Jonze takes the slim adventure further than the printed volume, delving deeper into Max's world, the unknown terrain of the island and the impetus that brings him there. In the process, he examines more fully the Wild Things, those volatile and endlessly expressive creatures, which represent the wild emotions within Max.

Ultimately, though, as a movie, "Where Wild Things Are" records Max's steps toward growing up, and acquiring self-awareness, as he gains knowledge and becomes conscious of the complex relationships the individual Wild Things have with each other and with him. Told with honesty from a child's point of view, "Where the Wild Things Are" reveals Max's increasing understanding of his own feelings and the feelings of others."

Levy has a pretty safe, broad appeal and he isn't a great writer, but he normally falls in line with the crowd and frequently is the first to review big studio films.

What Where the Wild Things Are needs to be is not just a chilhood 'learning to love what you have' story by virtue of an escapist experience to an imaginary land. It needs to delve into what it's like to grow up and wrap that in a drop-dead, fanciful and good-looking package. It needs to face the universal truth that children are emotionally unqualified and unconscionably cruel.
I have high hopes for this and a sugary, family-friendly sap-fest from Spike Jonze will not cut it.

Swedish La Mara

This Swedish poster from Cary Fukunaga's Sin Nombre reminded me how that debut from the 32-year old director is still one of the better films of the year.


By Chase Kahn

This story about Gary Ross signing on to re-write and direct a "Venom" spin-off film for Columbia Pictures sounds about as ridiculous as the Ryan Reynolds "Deadpool" solo feature. The last time we saw Venom on screen, it was an unmitigated disaster played by Topher Grace in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3.

Of course, any Marvel property unaffected by Disney's recent acquisition of the company on 8/31 is being fast-tracked into production in an attempt to keep control of these properties. In 2006, New Line Cinema lost the film rights to "Iron Man" when Marvel reacquired the rights and then immediately began production on the self-financed project. Clearly, this is what studios like 20th Century Fox and Sony/Columbia are trying to avoid by green-lighting "Ghost Rider 2", a "Fantastic Four" reboot and a "Venon" spin-off.

Gary Ross was also brought in to re-write James Vanderbilt's Spider-Man 4 script, which is due to hit theaters in the summer of 2011.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'The Spirit of St. Louis' (1957)

By Chase Kahn

Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis ('57) is a terrific, well-polished, albeit safe CinemaScope account of Charles A. Lindbergh's non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. I dug it because of Franz Waxman's score and Robert Burks' photography and Jimmy Stewart's performance, but Wilder's screenplay certainly has an air of respectability running through it even when it misteps at some crucial moments.

The movie sticks out to me because of the excellent stream-of-consciousness voiceover by Stewart as Lindbergh - which surely was something that was added into the script so that engine sputtering wasn't the only noise you heard during the historic flight taking up the second-half of the film as Lindbergh battles sleep deprivation, boredom, and unrest.

The fact that Wilder and Mayes chose to portray the early days of Lindbergh's life as an aspiring pilot during several flashback vignettes throughout the flight is an inspired choice but the scenes prove ultimately worthless. Instead of serving as insightful and prying, they're innocuous and obviously exist as mere time-lapses to speed along the epic, 32+ hour journey across the Atlantic. Honestly, we learn more from our time inside the cockpit than in the memories of our flying hero.

But The Spirit of St. Louis ultimately proves triumphant for the overall grand-sweep admiration is provides for the task. Billy Wilder certainly made better films, and I certainly wished the film had more scenes like the one between Jimmy Stewart and Patricia Smith in the hangar or the takeoff from Roosevelt Field scene, but I still stand behind it about 90%.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Oh Boy

This decade has seen a rapid influx of these white-boy rap world crime dramas. Takers is the next in line - Chris Brown, T.I., Idris Elba, Paul Walker, etc, etc. If the photoshopped poster is bad enough, check out the trailer. Anything keeping Hayden Christensen employed has to be a bottom-of-the-barrel gutter rat, doesn't it? This is like Fast & Furious without cars.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'Manhattan Melodrama' (1934)

By Chase Kahn

W.S. Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama ('34) is a clean-cut MGM gangster picture made at a time when James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Warner Bros. owned the genre in the early 30's. It closely resembles two later films: Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces ('38) and a later Clark Gable vehicle for the director, W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco ('37).

Clark Gable and William Powell play childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law, Gable as a ruthless gambler/gangster and Powell as a public-approved district attorney.

This is no different than the way a no-good thug (James Cagney) and an old friend (Pat O'Brien), now a priest, battled ideologies and morals in Angels With Dirty Faces. Nor is it much different than in San Francisco, where a greedy, money-scheming club owner (Clark Gable) goes head-to-head against an old friend who is now a local priest, as well (Spencer Tracy).

Those two films are good early works, but where they are optimistic, god-loving and reverently sympathetic, Manhattan Melodrama is hands-off and favorably indecisive. I'm strictly speaking of endings here, because in my opinion, Angels With Dirty Faces is a more lived-in and gritty film through 80 minutes before it takes a turn for the worst in the final few scenes.

I just prefer that whole Clark Gable sacrificial, unyielding move at the end of the film ("die the way you live") which so beautifully resembles the last hours of the life of John Dillinger - a point made clear by Michael Mann at the end of Public Enemies ('09). This is opposed to the jolly and flowery final moments to San Francisco and Angels With Dirty Faces which closely resemble the holy and pure mentalities prevalent in the films of the early Hollywood studio system.

Manhattan Melodrama may be a bit more rough around the edges and feel way to boxed-in and claustrophobic with its dark interiors, but it gets my vote over those two films because it doesn't completely succumb to the expected outcome. Both Clark Gable's Blackie Gallagher and William Powell's Jim Wade stand their ground and that kind of blurry line between right and wrong, in the end, makes the film work.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: 'Whip It' [B-]

By Chase Kahn

Spiked with girl power spunk and hair-colored rebellion, Drew Barrymore's Whip It is just a punk variation on the teenage-liberation, coming-of-age dramedy. It's funny, likeable, good-spirited and too syrupy by a half.

I did enjoy just taking in the excellent ensemble cast (Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis) and the breezy, fishnet stocking and nose pierced brutish femininity of it all - in fact, for 90 minutes, I was cool and mostly down with it. Then the third act finale of over-extended bow-tying and maple syrup spillage reminiscent of Richard Linklater's School of Rock turned me off a bit and after that, I just couldn't fully embrace it the way I wanted to.

I really like Ellen Page and she's very good here - almost too perfect for the role. In fact, the biggest problem with Whip It is that its coming on the heels of the Oscar-nominated Juno. Page has played this kind of alternative, imprisoned and eccentric maturation adaptor before and this fact doesn't help distinguish the two works from one another, magnifying the telegraphed connect-the-dots script. There just isn't a lot of suspense in Whip It, which hits its narrative beats all too precisely - it's like a fixed roller derby match that's nevertheless fun to partake in.

Review: 'Paranormal Activity' [B]

By Chase Kahn

Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity is a micro-budgeted cult classic in the making, that is unless Paramount decides to give this a 1,000+ release, then it has all the makings of a cultural epidemic a la The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

To be straight, it's a mockumentary demonic-haunting film about a young, terrorized San Diego couple that is effective to say the least. Being a film that focuses on what happens when you go to sleep, Paranormal Activity preys on the vulnerability of its subjects. It's full of blue-tinted night vision freak-outs and still hallways with footsteps and swinging doors -- it puts new meaning to the term, "creaky house".

The problems that I had with it (which I saw at midnight in the recent expansion here in Dallas) start with a few convoluted backstories and end with the final scene. Director Oren Peli, working on a $15,000 budget, knows how to stage scares but he forces too much story and understanding on us and the ending is too easy and too much.

However, Paranormal Activity is definitely a great horror film in the scares department -- refreshingly void of an aggressive sound mix -- but it's not a great "film". Most of the 600 in the packed house at theater #9 in Northpark didn't seem to care. The bang-to-hype ratio is on-point and justified.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Box Office: Friday Numbers (10.02.09)

By Chase Kahn

Lots of stuff opening this weekend, plus a few interesting holdovers, but Ruben Fleischer's excellent familial bonding comedy by way of a zombie apocalypse, Zombieland is easily the champ, grossing $9.4m, which I'm seeing is good enough for a solid $23.5m estimate through Sunday.

Coming in 2nd was the 3D animated foodie Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs ($3.7m), which I refused to check out after the last second-tier, big budget animated extravaganza, Monsters vs. Aliens was an utter wreck. 3rd was a re-release of the first two Toy Story films in 3D, packaged as a double feature ($3.2m)

The Ricky Gervais comedy The Invention of Lying ($2.4m) came in 4th ahead of Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates ($2.2m) and Drew Barrymore's Whip It ($1.5m), which I saw today and is actually a decent little child liberation dramedy with a ton of spunk and hair-colored energy -- I'll talk about it a bit later in the day.

Poor MGM, the once grand and luxurious lion of the studio system is now a fledgling duck. Fame, it's first release since Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, really tanked this week after a terrible opening last week. They can't even cash in on the High School Musical crowd.

Top 10: (Friday)

1. Zombieland (Sony/Columbia) - $9.4
2. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Sony/Columbia) - $3.7
3. Toy Story/Toy Story 2 in 3D (Buena Vista) - $3.2
4. The Invention of Lying (Warner Bros.) - $2.4
5. Surrogates (Buena Vista) - $2.2
6. Whip It (Fox Searchlight) - $1.5
7. Capitalism: A Love Story (Overture) - $1.5
8. Fame (MGM) - $1.4
9. The Informant! (Warner Bros.) - $1.1
10. Love Happens (Universal) - $.9

Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: 'Zombieland' [B+]

By Chase Kahn

I was more than pleasantly surprised to find out that not only is Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland a raucously funny, heavy-metal, guitar-riffing, zombie-kill mix tape coked-up on Red Bull, but it's a smart, genuine and occasionally wholesome (seriously) kind of stick-together-and-prevail post-apocalyptic action comedy.

With Jesse Eisenberg's romantic longings and nerd-guy vibes of antihero geekiness and that mini afro, I was reminded on more than one occasion of Greg Mottola's Adventureland. It's the same kind of guy-meets-girl, coming-of-age, smart-guy college stuff, but migrated into the middle of a ravenous horde of flesh-eaters meeting pick axes and hedge clippers.

When it comes right down to it, Zombieland is a splatter-fest action comedy extravaganza for most of the running time. It's flamboyantly bloodthirsty, twisted and macho-aggressive, but I never thought that it crossed the edge and turned into nihilism or tastelessness.

Zombieland is too cuddly and fun and good-natured for accusations of sadism and exploitation because it's really a hilarious, romantic and warm-spirited kind of thing. In short, it uses a zombie apocalypse (and conveniently written characters) to exhibit valuable life lessons of family bonding, love, adolescence, parenting, etc. -- so who says zombie are a bad thing?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'Beat the Devil' (1953)

By Chase Kahn

Shot on location in Italy, John Huston's Beat the Devil is a dark, twisted and playfully ironic crime comedy -- a perfect marriage, not only between the classic film-noir formula and the Western European landscape of street-side cafes and coast-lined hotels, but of two screenwriters working on otherworldly levels of creativity and ingenuity, Truman Capote and John Huston.

The script was literally being written concurrently with the actual shooting of the film and the dialogue has this perfect air of spontaneity and pre-meditation that the actors pull off brilliantly. Beat the Devil is very slyly funny and farcical with the easily distinguishable veneer of Huston's early straight-laced noir classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
And rightfully so, seeing as how Beat the Devil was intended as a campy spoof by Huston of his early fedora-and-bare-knuckled Elisha Cook Jr. works. It's like The Maltese Falcon meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by way of Michaelangelo Antonioni -- all with a comedic air of tongue-in-cheek inanity.

Humphrey Bogart has no trouble sliding into roles like this, a crook joining ranks with a barbaric foursome of ill-fitting criminals to gain passage to Africa and score a big Uranium deal. But the star of the movie really is Jennifer Jones as the scheming, greedy and lying wife of a mysterious English gentleman who may or may not be a wealthy African landowner. The always welcome Peter Lorre also joins the cast with Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley and Edward Underdown.

Beat the Devil is currently in the public domain. Someone like Criterion needs to give this thing the big-time 2-disc restoration makeover treatment. It's a largely misunderstood and undervalued film -- one of Huston's best.

It's also known as having one of the most misleading and inaccurate one-sheets of all-time.

"All to the Good"

By Chase Kahn

Jeff Wells wrote a paragraph on Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland this morning, calling it, "an engaging zombie comedy with dabs of marginal Wes Anderson attitude-personality...and then came the (Jeff uses a big spoiler here) and I was blown away".

It opens tomorrow and has garnered pretty good reviews to this point (87% RT and 72 MC), but we should see 50+ reviews come in between now and Friday morning. I'll be seeing Zombieland tomorrow around noon with a quick write-up/review later on.