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Contagion: Really solid disease worth catching

Contagion review

This past decade has been filled with mostly movies of escapism and fantasy. Very rarely do we find a film based on realism. While there are those few films that surprise us, mostly audiences go for movies that suspend reality as a means to break away from it nowadays. And yet, sometimes reality can be freaky enough. This past decade has brought numerous epidemics and scares from avian flu to swine flu; many of them would be great for a movie. Enter Contagion.

Contagion is a movie from Stephen Soderbergh of Ocean’s Eleven fame. It’s not for someone expecting something like 28 Days Later because there is no need to invent a creature to induce fear. The realism of the whole movie is what makes this story even more interesting, even compelling. Soderbergh uses an ensemble cast of actors to portray more real-life characters and pure reality to get the idea across.

A father (Matt Damon) must protect his daughter after his wife(Gwyneth Paltrow) and son die of a strange disease. It turns out that his wife was the first to contract this fatal disease. As the disease spreads around the world and kills everyone who contracts it, Dr. Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) of the Center of Disease Control must find a cure. Thrown into the search for a cure are a World Health Representative (Marion Cotillard), a research specialist (Kate Winslet) and a freelance journalist (Jude Law). All must find a means to cure the disease in the midst of panic.

Three things are what make this movie really strong; one of them is a solid ensemble. The main actors go less for extraordinary circumstance and more for subdued concern. This allows for more believability and understanding. These aren’t Oscar-winning performances but don’t need to be. Lawrence Fishburne and Jude Law stand out the most for their performances, stealing every scene that they’re in. Each actor blends in to the movie where just barely you can recognize the actor.

The second thing is the story. This is a tightly constructed story that comes together well, leaving few loose ends and barely any wholes. Everyone comes together and has an important part to the story. Everybody from the journalist to the head of research to the everyman is important to the overall movie. The reality of the story alone can frighten us. This sort of thing could happen because it HAS happened, from Ebola to H1N1. It isn’t the disease that is scary but the fear of death and how society reacts to it. Soderbergh captures that panic perfectly, which leads to the third thing: the direction. Soderbergh gives the audience the ability to see the world through the eyes of the infected, feeling what they feel and reacting how they do. His most clever piece of direction comes from the ending. No spoilers will appear, but let’s just say it answers some really big questions. The only real downside was that the movie did seem to feel longer than 107 minutes, but it fortunately wasn’t boring.

Contagion is most likely this year’s most underrated movie because it’s a pretty solid story told pretty well but may not be for this audience. The ensemble work was pretty strong, the direction was great, and the realism worked. It wasn’t exactly “running out of the theater” scary, but it does make us understand why people would fear this. This is a good escape from all the escapism of Hollywood: no frills, just story.

Final Rating: 8 out of 10 – Do Go


Your Highness: A Royal Pain to Watch

Your Highness is owned by Universal.

I saw something really interesting while browsing the bookstore: a book presenting The Big Lebowski as a Shakespearean play. If you have never seen The Big Lebowski, it’s about a slacker/stoner named “The Dude” who has to solve a mystery as to why a wealthy man’s wife is missing. Being a slacker, he doesn’t really have much enthusiasm over the matter, but random events occur to him that help him solve the mystery. Once you see this movie, you can imagine how putting it in a Shakespearean setting can be funny. However, like all things done, there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. Your Highness is the WRONG WAY.

From the director of Pineapple Express comes a stoner comedy set in medieval times which also has a recent Academy Award winner and a host of the Academy Awards playing supporting roles. What could go wrong? Everything. The jokes were juvenile and disgusting. The premise was stupid. It even uses those wide-angle lens close-ups that I didn’t even like in The King’s Speech. There was very little that I liked about this movie, and that which I did like wasn’t enough to save it. I was watching this film in agony of its stupidity.

The movie is about two brothers: Thadeous (Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco). The latter is a brave and gallant knight about to wed a beautiful maiden named Belladonna (Zooey Deshanel). The former is a slacker who doesn’t like to do anything but smoke weed and bring his servant Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) everywhere with him. During Fabious’s wedding, the wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) kidnaps Belladonna so he can have sex with her. Fabious and Thadeous go on a quest to save her and come across Isabel (Natalie Portman) who is after Leezar to avenge the murder of her brothers.

While I don’t hate Danny McBride, I don’t’ like his character. I’ve seen McBride play better roles when he isn’t trying to be funny. I liked him in Tropic Thunder. To be honest, almost all of the actors had to deal with bad characters. James Franco, while he had a rocky beginning, actually did a decent job holding his own. I could tell he was trying to take his character seriously. Justin Theroux, unfortunately, had to deal with a character just as bad as Thadeous, maybe even worse. He plays this character as a cross between a frat boy and a spoiled teenage daughter. Courtney, however, was a decent character. He wasn’t funny, but he wasn’t trying to be funny. Natalie Portman was the best. She proved her Oscar for Black Swan wasn’t a fluke. Like Franco, she took her character seriously and portrayed it seriously. She let her natural beauty do its own talking and focused more on her character. Unfortunately, she couldn’t save the movie.

In an attempt to be funny, the writers threw in some really nasty jokes. The Wizard (who looks like a cross between Barney the dinosaur and a catfish) smokes pot and comes across as a pervert, asking for someone to “do a job for him”. The worst joke, however, is when Thadeous slays a Minotaur and decides to take something from it as a trophy. He can’t take a horn, so he settles for something lower. Half of the dialogue is sexual and just nasty. There is a part when Leezar is explaining to Belladonna how he’ll be a great lover. I can’t repeat what he says for the sake of public decency, but it refers to “personal experience”. I heard that the dialogue in this movie is entirely improvised. If so, these people need to stick with a script.

Bottom line: Your Highness is just low. The jokes are nasty; the dialogue is stupid; the premise is terrible; and the only good things were James Franco, Natalie Portman, and Courtney. To say this film is geared towards a certain audience is like saying Epic Movie is supposed to be bad.  You’re better off seeing other movies such as Hanna or even Soul Surfer.

Final Rating: 3 out of 10 – Don’t Go


Dazed and Confused: No confusion in quality

Dazed and Confused is owned by Universal Pictures

For my film studies course, I have to create a thesis regarding American cinema and write a paper on it. My thesis is on how filmmaking in Austin, Texas has further developed American cinema. Austin, Texas has become what one journalist has called “the third coast” for film. What started with a chainsaw slasher film developed an actual studio and site for most movies. Austin still develops its fair share of independent films, some of which have developed large cult followings. For my topic, I decided to watch one: Dazed and Confused.

Director Richard Linklater (who believe it or not founded the Austin Film Society) wrote and directed this indie in 1993 about a couple of high schoolers enjoying their last day of school during the seventies. Dazed and Confused didn’t bring in much revenue but has since develop a strong following including a near-perfect score on Rottentomatoes.com…and I can see why. Ever heard of a film called American Graffiti? Well, this movie is like that, only a little better. It’s funnier, the music is better, and it’s much more likable. It’s definitely a stoner movie, but its not a stoner movie that is too obnoxious. It has elements of heart, friendship and connection combined with a proper amount of raunchy humor.

The movie deals with a group of high schoolers trying to enjoy their last day of high school in 1976. Randall “Pink” Floyd (played by Jason London) is hesitant to return to the football team because he doesn’t want to sign a pledge saying he’ll stay away from drugs and sex. A number of senior guys try to paddle middle schoolers as a right of initiation into high school. Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins). a middle schooler, tags along with Floyd and some of Floyd’s friends after he gets paddled by O’Bannion (Ben Affleck. No seriously, Ben Affleck is in this film). After a planned party with beer has its cover blown, everyone just drives around looking for something to do. Two nerds,  Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Mike (Adam Goldberg), drive around trying to have fun. Tony hooks up with a freshman girl (Christin Hinojosa), and Mike wants to do something memorable in his life.

Like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused is told in a series of vignettes happening simultaneously. There really is no coherent story as much as it is a bunch of sub-stories. However, these sub-stories weave together a tapestry of trying to find purpose in life and enjoyment during adolescence. It’s about growing up and finding out who you are and what you want to be while enjoying your life right now. I can see why Richard Linklater picked the Led Zeppelin song for the title. There are many different characters in this film. Each one has their own story, giving him or her enough time for the audience to get to know them. There really is no main character unless you consider “Pink” or Mitch the main character. Really it’s high school that is the subject matter.

There aren’t many big-names or anyone familiar. There are three names that we know now: Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey. Everyone else isn’t all well-known. Despite that, the actors are believable in their roles. Each character was someone different, and each actor’s personality seem to fit with each one. Matthew McConaughey plays his character Wooderson as pretty laid back. What makes it work so well is that Matt is pretty laid back in real life (so laid back that he’ll play bongos in the nude). The best actor is probably Rory Cochrane as the stoner Slater. You’d believe he was a stoner if he told you. I really can’t say which actor stood out because every one did a really good job in carrying the story across. That isn’t a bad thing, though. That’s why I thought The Social Network was stronger than The King’s Speech.

The best thing about this movie is how well Richard Linklater created this world of the seventies. He picked some really great songs of the time, which isn’t hard because the music of the seventies was great. He combined every possible culture of the seventies into one movie minus the disco crowd. Hippies, potheads, rockers, everybody. High school itself never really changes. It always has the same groups that run the place regardless. This makes this movie easier for us to relate, maybe even sympathetic. We know these people, maybe not to this extent. Regardless of the time, the message isn’t dated or of its time.

Bottom line: Dazed and Confused is a great movie. It has great characters and vignettes. The music is great. The jokes that work really work. The energy is fun and high. Above all, we can relate to it. It’s a better American Graffiti than…well, American Graffiti. In a time where Hollywood is running out of new ideas, independent movies such as this really stand out. Hell, Office Space has a strong following, and that, too, came from Austin. As long as movies like these come out of Texas, there is no doubt that there will be a fruitful studio here in the Lone Star State.

Final Rating: 9 out of 10 – Do Go


Full House Introduction

As a critic, it is my duty to look at movies and judge them according to taste and preference. Having said that, there are a good number of movies that I like that other people don’t and vice versa. As a movie-lover, I constantly wonder what exactly makes a good movie? What do audiences want in a movie, and what turns them off? The gap between critics and audiences is wide at times because there are movies that critics love and audiences don’t as well as audiences love and critics don’t. Usually, they match, but audiences will vary. Despite the varying opinions of some people, certain formulas never seem to fail because lots of movies use these formulas and attract large amounts of audiences.

This is why I am beginning a section called Full House: Analyzing What Audiences Love. I will state different elements of movies that are very successful and gain a lot of audience approval afterwards. I will start the first part later on this week and continue as I develop  them. Until then, be prepared.


Drive Angry: Violent, Obscene, and Fun to Watch

Can someone please explain to me Nicholas Cage? This guy is one of the weirdest actors out there. He has the potential to be a good actor and occasionally is, but for every good role he plays, he gives us a few roles that are just strange and/or bad. I think a good example of this is Ghost Rider where he plays a stunt motorcyclist who sold his soul to the devil. I watched the first half of this movie in the Commons, and I was just laughing at the sheer stupidity of it. Cage’s acting was a combination of ham and his usual gruff whisper that just adds to the oddity that is Nicholas Cage. Now, the reason I bring up Ghost Rider is because he again plays a person who is confined to Hell in Drive Angry.

Yes, Nicholas Cage is back in this 3-D action film giving us that usual element of strangeness that he somehow brings. From a title like Drive Angry, you’d expect a basic car chase/car race movie. Well, it isn’t. In fact, expect a lot of sex, a lot of violence, a lot of gore, a lot of cheap effects, a lot of profanity…and surprisingly a lot of fun out of it. Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed watching this film despite how many elements it has to hate it. The cheap effects and the clichéd moments were offset by the good acting and the fun tone of the film.

Nicholas Cage plays John Milton (get it?), a man who somehow breaks out of Hell to prevent the baby of his murdered daughter being sacrificed by the Satanic cult leader who killed her named Jonah King (Billy Burke). He comes across Piper (Amber Heard), a girl who likes fast cars and cusses like a sailor, and takes her along for the ride. But following Milton’s path is a minion of Hell called The Accountant (William Fichtner) who tries to take Milton back to Hell.

To take care of the poor things first, the special effects were pretty cheap. The coin The Accountant flips, the bones that fly out, and the bullets that Milton fire come from the low end of computer graphics. Throw in the cliché of exploding cars and the 3-D gimmicks of things coming at you which get pretty annoying at times. The car chase between Milton and the Accountant is pretty downplayed, and the villain is pretty one-dimensional: crazy demonic Southern man with a gun. But Nicholas Cage is on the up-side of his strange roles in this one because he actually does make his character interesting, as does William Fichtner. In fact, I was actually upset that I didn’t get to see enough of Fichtner because he makes his one-dimensional character really interesting. Amber Heard, though, was the best of the three. She gives her character that feistiness, edge and sexiness that makes her really entertaining to watch. On top of that, the gun fight scenes can be pretty cool. The best one has to be when Nicholas Cage kills everybody while having sex with a waitress in a hotel room. That was just cool. There are some car chases that are fun, but they’re not what you would expect from the title. They’re not so angry.

What also makes this interesting is how subtle they make the references that Milton is from Hell. They open with him leaving Hell, and they talk about people saying he’s dead, but it’s not so blatantly obvious that he is from Hell until right around the end. Cage’s character does offer euphemisms such as “locked up”, but that’s as obvious as it gets. We know that Milton can’t be killed because he gets shot in the eye but still survives. In fact, neither he nor the Accountant can be killed except by a special gun with magical powers that can send someone into complete oblivion (and by that, I mean no heaven or hell). Yeah, that idea is stupid, but this is a grindhouse film.

Bottom line: Drive Angry is gory, violent, obscene, and it’s pretty fun watching it. The characters can be one-dimensional, but the acting makes them interesting. The fight scenes can be amusing though cheap, but cheap thrills can be better than none at all. It suffers from being gimmicky with its 3-D and special effects, and the story and characters don’t have much development, but it’s surprisingly entertaining. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s not too bad either.

Final Rating: 6 out of 10 – I’d Go


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