Thursday, January 31, 2008

REVIEW: Over Her Dead Body

As published in The Technician:

Watch this over your dead body

Let's face it: Most movies these days are all the same. The vast majority of films are recycled formulas with a few tweaks here and there attempting to look "fresh." Thankfully, every once in a while, a film comes along that is different from the rest. A film that doesn't just entertain, but changes how you look at the world. Such gems are often described as "inspiring" or "thought-provoking" or "masterpieces."

I have witnessed the first film of 2008 that has changed how I view the world: Over Her Dead Body.

However, unlike movies that fall under the label of "masterpiece," I feel this one deserves its own special category: the anti-film. Not only does this romantic comedy fail to be either romantic or funny, it's also a perfect example of how not to make a film in almost every aspect. I did leave the theater with a renewed sense of fulfillment and appreciation for the world around me, but that's only because I couldn't believe I had managed to get through the past two hours without taking my own life.

The film follows a veterinarian (Paul Rudd) who hires a psychic (Lake Bell) to contact his dead fiancee (Eva Longoria Parker) in the afterlife, only to start falling for her and her supernatural abilities. Of course, this doesn't go over well with his dead girlfriend, who comes back as a ghost to keep them from ending up together. Think Ghost, but with a diabolical she-devil instead of Patrick Swayze, and without any of the things that made that film bearable to watch. You can probably guess most of the plot points and how it all turns out. The only thing surprising about this film is that it was green lit to begin with.

Parker should never be the lead actress in another movie ever again, over-performing even the simplest of lines in a tone more fit for daytime soaps than the big screen. She rigidly prances around the screen as if trying to appear formidable and antagonistic, but instead just comes across as annoying. And for those guys out there who are thinking it might be worth going just for the eye-candy, forget it -- the filmmakers even accomplish the incredible feat of making her appear unattractive. Bell fares only slightly better, delivering a performance that, at best, can be considered tolerable.

Rudd is clearly the most talented of the bunch, and manages to somehow squeeze a few pity laughs through his lines, but even he can't always act around the atrocious dialogue. Every once in a while he gets a mischievous gleam in his eye, as if he's longing to burn his contract and run triumphantly off into the sunset. He's better than this, and he knows it.

The script feels like it was written by a first-grader, from the cringe-inducing dialogue to the fart joke that lasts upwards of thirty seconds. Every single character can be summarized in two words or less, without leaving anything out: veterinarian, psychic, ghost fiancee. Is it possible for characters to be so flat that they barely even achieve one-dimensionality? Evidently.

This film has no redeeming qualities whatsoever -- even the musical overlays feel out of place and downright oppressive. The only good part is when the screen fades to black, the credits start to roll and you realize you've survived the cinematic equivalent of hell. One can only hope this is not a sign of things to come. Trust me, even if your friend begs you to go see this with him, there is only one proper response: "Over my dead body."

Rating: 0/5 stars

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman
Synopsis: Sixteen year-old Juno finds herself forced to make big decisions when she accidentally gets pregnant.
Thoughts: Firstly, I have no idea why this movie got nominated for Best Picture, it's not that good. Secondly, I have no idea why people are raving about Ellen Page's performance - she's very good, but not Oscar-worthy. Thirdly, this is still a great film that I would recommend to pretty much anyone. I can't think of any major flaws. The movie's greatest strength is its script, which has some of the most clever dialogue I've heard in a long time, and some of the lines will probably go down in history as memorable movie quotes. If you're looking for a light, funny and family-friendly comedy with a lot of heart, definitely give this one a shot.


Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe (as themselves)
Synopsis: This documentary follows two men as they compete to set a world record - for highest Donkey Kong score.
Thoughts: Who knew an 8-bit video game could cause so much intense skill, obsession and backstabbing? It's not the best documentary of the year, but it's definitely a good one. I was amazed at how serious competitive gaming is; it's a pretty big deal. You'll find yourself really caring about how wins at Donkey Kong, believe it or not. It's the champion versus the elementary teacher who has potential to overthrow him, and it gets pretty intense. Maybe if this film becomes a hit on DVD, video game playing will start to get the respect it deserves (which is a lot, because I play video games).

BRIEF THOUGHTS: Dan in Real Life

Director: Peter Hedges
Starring: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook
Synopsis: A widower with three daughters falls for his brother's girlfriend.
Thoughts: A surprisingly fresh and sweet dramedy. Carell and Binoche are perfect, and Dane Cook actually doesn't suck. It's definitely not a life-changing masterpiece of cinema, but it has enough laughs and drama to make it worth your while. Good flick to see with a date. Or your mom. Not a good one to see if you've fallen for your brother's girlfriend.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

COMMENTARY: Heath Ledger's Death

As published in The Technician:

Reflect on life, not on death

"I hope they finished filming The Dark Knight."

That was the first thought that entered my head last night when I heard the news that actor Heath Ledger had been found dead his in his New York apartment. I know, I know, I'm a jerk -- a guy dies and the first thing I think of is how it will affect the movie. But I'm not the only one who thought that, it seems. In fact, it seems like people everywhere care more about the circumstances and the effects of his death, rather than the simple fact that he died.

A few recent articles even have headlines like, "Ledger's autopsy inconclusive; details will take 10 days" -- as if to say, "In two weeks, we'll be back with the latest gossip and speculation!"

I guess that's to be expected in a culture where the cult of celebrity is growing larger every day. Americans are obsessed with celebrities, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because they represent success, and wealth -- you know, the American dream. Maybe it's just because we're jealous. Whatever the reason, you've got to wonder why people can tell you the name of Tom and Katie's kid but don't know who won the last political primary.

There is a common perception nowadays that because someone is "famous" we should devote countless hours of attention to their lives, and not just their lives, but their deaths as well. Remember when Anna Nicole Smith died, and how for weeks you couldn't turn to CNN without seeing her face plastered everywhere? I'm not saying it wasn't newsworthy, but surely there were other more important and relevant events happening in the world during that time. What does that say about us as a culture? Is that something good or bad? I don't have an answer, I'm just saying it's something to think about.

A few minutes after the Ledger story broke, I got an IM from a friend telling me that Wikipedia was going bonkers. Users were editing Ledger's entry to include what was then just speculation about how he had died. One minute it said he had died of an intentional heroin overdose.Then you'd hit Refresh, only to find it was now listed as accidental. Some people even edited the entry as a prank, posting that he'd been found wearing his Joker make-up, and other film-related falsities. How respectful.

Hollywood has lost one of its brightest young stars, but rather than simply acknowledge this fact, the media (not to mention the majority of average citizens) immediately jumped all over the story and started implying things that may or may not be true. Heck, it's been two days since he died, and I'm still not sure what really happened. Was it an accident or a suicide? Was it related at all to his work, particularly his new role as a twisted psychopath in the new Batman movie? Was he a drug addict?

What I'm wondering is: does any of that matter?

A talented performer is gone, and the world -- at least from the eyes of a filmgoer -- is worse without him. Perhaps before we jump to conclusions and make investigations and discover the "truth" behind his death, we should take a few minutes to reflect on his life. It's a courtesy usually offered to non-celebrities. Why should the rich and famous be treated any differently?

I remember when I first saw Ledger on screen, in the Mel Gibson war drama The Patriot. It wasn't a breakthrough performance, but it certainly indicated that there were some serious acting chops beneath the pretty face. It would only be a few years later when he'd be nominated for an Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain. And with all the publicity surrounding his new role in The Dark Knight, it seemed like he was on the verge of superstardom. All that, and the main questions being asked now is, "Did the apartment belong to Mary-Kate Olsen?" and "Is it because he got too immersed in the role of the Joker?"

I wonder if Ledger could see us now, what he'd think about all the uproar. Maybe he'd feel honored we care enough to get so riled up about the details of his death.

But then again, maybe he'd think this was all just a big joke.

REVIEW: There Will Be Blood

As published in The Technician:

Anderson strikes it rich in Blood

There Will Be Blood is the latest offering from director Paul Thomas Anderson, and marks his first film since Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film was just released widely this past weekend. The word-of-mouth on the film was that it was a masterpiece; one critic even referred to it alongside The Godfather and Citizen Kane as possibly the best of all time.

I don't know if I'd go that far, but one thing is for sure: There Will Be Blood is certainly filmmaking at its finest.

Anderson, who in films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia focused on an ensemble of characters and their relationships, this time turns his lens on a single oil prospector (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the early 1900s as he attempts to find the land with the most oil that he can buy for the cheapest price. Morality is not an issue, as he has no regard for any other human life except his own -- in his own words, "I see the worst in people." He will lie, cheat and even resort to murder, all in the name of profit.

In his quest for wealth, Plainview encounters a rival in the form of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a religious fanatic who opposes anything that might prevent people from coming to God -- specifically, through his church. And it is in this conflict that Anderson shows how he has matured as a filmmaker, for he focuses not only on character development but also on thematic development. Though in past films he frequently focused on the relationship between parents and children (and this is still present here), he broadens his view this time to also examine the American ideology that was born in the rush for oil in the early 1900s.

Plainview and Sunday provide the perfect metaphors for what happens when capitalism and religion are taken to the extreme and twisted for personal gain. In Anderson's portrait of the early 20th century, these two concepts are the dominant cultural forces in people's lives, and both share an affinity for blood, either that resulting from brutal competition or what Eli refers to as the "saving blood" of Christ. It's a bleak and desolate view of how certain American ideals began, but as Anderson himself has acknowledged, it's a view many people can relate to today.

Day-Lewis gives arguably the best performance of the decade, delivering his lines in a gruff growl that elicits chills -- whether he's talking about murder or milkshakes. And it's not just the voice, it's every little gesture and movement. In the very first scene, Day-Lewis and Anderson work so well together that they are able to firmly establish Plainview as a multi-dimensional character without a single word of dialogue. The rest of the actors are also top-notch, particularly Dano, who shows he's quite capable of handling himself alongside the older, more experienced Day-Lewis. If this is any indication, we can expect to see great things from him in the future.

The film is not without flaws, though there aren't many. A subplot involving a long-lost brother could have benefited from more development, and Plainview's characterization at times feels slightly out-of-place. But perhaps the latter is a strength rather than a weakness. Plainview is a moral enigma, alternating between savage cruelty and unexpected acts of kindness. Anderson has left his protagonist room to breathe and allows the audience to reach their own conclusions about his complicated psyche. Rather than telling viewers how to respond to Plainview, his direction is mature enough that images and silences are often more effective at gradually revealing his characters' motivations than dialogue.

There Will Be Blood is not a perfect film, and only time will tell if it goes down in history as a "classic." However, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better-crafted character study or a more thought-provoking exploration of American ideology.

Rating: 9/10

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Sweet And Sour: 2007

It's time for The Candyman to hand out meaningless recognition to the best (and worst), the sweetest and sourest, films of 2007. It should be noted that as of the time of this posting, I have seen around 50-60 films this year. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a lot. There are many I still need to see, and plan on seeing, including several critical favorites (like No Country For Old Men and Juno, to name a few). So like all such lists of subjectivity, this is far from complete. However, given the circumstances (I spent the whole summer working and was out of the country in the fall), I think I did okay. So without further ado, here are the notable films of 2007.

Best Action Film: Live Free or Die Hard - If only all movies that are the fourth in a franchise were this good. It's not a perfect film, but it's much better than expected, and the action scenes are probably the best and most over-the-top of the series. He fights a fighter jet in an eighteen-wheeler for crying out loud!
Runner-Up: Grindhouse, Shoot 'Em Up

Best Comedy: Knocked Up - I love Judd Apatow. It's just as funny as The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and still has all the heart that's missing from most sex comedies. I've seen it about three times now, and it's still just as enjoyable as it was the first time.
Runner-Up: Superbad

Best Drama: Reign Over Me - The two leads carry this movie on their shoulders, and Sandler gives arguably the best performance of his career. It's funny, it's sweet, and just might get you misty-eyed.
Runner-Up: American Gangster

Best Documentary: Lake of Fire - The best presentation of the abortion issue I have ever seen. Fifteen years in the making, it's surprisingly objective and does an excellent job of revealing how abortion is a fundamentally unique and gray issue, and there are no easy answers.
Runner-Up: For The Bible Tells Me So

Best Animated Film: Ratatouille - Duh. It's Pixar.
Runner-Up: The Simpsons Movie

Best Foreign Film: Lust, Caution - I saw the edited Chinese version and I still enjoyed it. Tony Leung is the man.

Biggest Surprise: I Am Legend - I wasn't expecting much, and what I got instead was the most intriguing zombie/mutant film in years. Smith spends the majority of the film alone with no one to act against but a dog, and it works. The writing and directing is superb, gradually revealing more and more about the protagonist's fractured psyche. Finally, a post-apocalyptic movie where I actually genuinely care about the main character! The ending is one of the worst of the year, but the rest of the film makes up for it, and we can always hope for a director's cut with an alternate one.
Runner-Up: Live Free or Die Hard

Biggest Disappointment: Spider-Man 3 - I've said enough about this in my review. It could (and should) have been so much more!
Runner-Up: Shrek 3, Rescue Dawn

Most Overrated Film: 3:10 to Yuma - It's a good movie, but not as fantastic as most critics seem to think.
Runner-Up: 1408

Film That Deserved Better: Black Snake Moan - It's far from perfect, but for some reason I really liked this movie. Maybe it's the strong spiritual undertones, the great music, or Sam Jackson's superb performance, but whatever it is, this movie deserved a lot better. With a budget of only $15 million, it made only made $4 million its opening weekend and will probably barely break even. You'd think a movie with Samuel L. Jackson and a scantily-clad Christina Ricci would at least make its money back. This coupled with the box-office failure of Grindhouse only confirms to me that the reason Hollywood is becoming less and less original is because whenever it does take a risk with edgier films, we don't pay to see them. How can we blame them for turning around and giving us the crap our money says we want?
Runner-Up: Grindhouse

Best Actor:
Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) - Quite possibly the best performance of the decade (or the past few decades, for that matter). Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview; who knew such a despicable character could be portrayed to such perfection? Even when he talks about milkshakes it's chilling!
Runner-Up: Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises), Tony Leung (Lust, Caution), Adam Sandler (Reign Over Me)

Best Actress:
Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) - I almost completely forgot about Amy Ryan. She's so good that she doesn't stand out - when I was watching her on screen I almost forgot she was there. You don't question that she's a grieving mother who happens to be awful at raising kids, you just assume it, and focus on the other actors around her. If that makes any sense.
Runner-Up: Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd)

Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) - He directs Daniel Day-Lewis' finest performance and has produced the best film of the year, and possibly the decade. If this is a sign of things to come, he will go down in history with people like Kubrick and Spielberg as one of the greatest directors of all time. Give this guy an Oscar!
Runner-Up: Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd), Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone)

Worst Film: Blood and Chocolate - Other than an interesting (if not terribly impressive) process of transformation, this werewolf romance has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The acting is awful, the script is atrocious, and even the special effects are sub-par. How hard is it with technology nowadays to make someone's eyes change colors convincingly? I mean, come on!
Runner-Up: Ghost Rider, Shooter

Best Film: There Will Be Blood - This is the kind of film that will be studied in universities for decades to come. Everything from the writing to the acting to the cinematography to the structure is near-perfect. In fact, if it wasn't for a slightly under-developed subplot and some unclear characterization, this could potentially gain the status of "classic" in the vein of The Godfather and Citizen Kane. It's that good. Its exploration of what happens when capitalism and religion are taken to the extreme, and both the conflict and dependence they have for each other, is thought-provoking and stunning to watch unfold. This is a film that demands multiple viewings; I'm still trying to process everything.
Runner-Up: Grindhouse

And those are my "awards", so to speak, for the year. Feel free to post your picks and comments as well. It's time to look forward to 2008, and what will hopefully be a spectacular year for movies. On that note...

Most Anticipated Film of 2008: The Dark Knight