Thursday, June 30, 2011

Real Life (1979)

In 1973, PBS aired what is widely considered to be the first reality television show, "An American Family." This is a satire of that miniseries.

Documentary filmmaker Albert Brooks (as himself) wants to turn the cameras on an ordinary American family that has no ties to Hollywood or the film industry. He chooses the Yeager clan from Phoenix, Arizona. Led by Warren and Jeannette (Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain), the family starts with simple interactions with the crew before quickly realizing they're in over their heads. The family is always aware of where the cameras are and are careful of what they say in front of them. The pressure soon starts to boil over. At his veterinary practice, Warren commits a fatal mistake. The death of a family member has a negative impact on Jeannette. All the while, Albert, the cameramen and the scientists studying the family are constantly hanging around, not allowing the Yeagers to lead the normal life they wanted to. Luckily for them, it blows up in the studio's face.

I love this mockumentary more for what it correctly predicted about the future of reality TV than the actual film itself. Everything from the digital filmmaking to media obsession to the get-rich-quick lifestyle to staged incidents, Albert Brooks accurately predicts what is to come in the future of television. The movie itself strays a bit from the central focus and drags at parts, but it had plenty of tongue-in-cheek hilarity to make up for what it lacked. Watch this and you'll realize what I'm talking about. Grade: A-

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Inside Job (2010)

Now, I don't claim to know a lot about business, but this documentary plainly stated the financial inequities that led to the economic collapse in 2008 so even I could understand.

After several questionable and eyebrow-raising loans within the regulatory and subprime lending industries, the world suffered a catastrophic collapse which sent millions of Americans into the unemployment office. For almost a decade, the political movement toward deregulation and the complex derivatives market made way for a systematic risk taken by many in the financial sector. However, when they kept borrowing and borrowing, the bubble eventually burst and led to one of the biggest Wall Street sell-offs in history. Several analysts, politicians, journalists and academics interviewed for this film had various takes on the situation that all pointed in the same direction. The problem being once the culprit was found, very little was done to make sure it never happens again. Even those interviewed who had a hand in those troubling decisions couldn't explain how to avoid similar calamity.

I worked in a newsroom at this time and couldn't wrap my head around a lot of the subject matter. Mostly, I was just thankful to have a job. But now I have a better knowledge of the situation that still lingers three years later. Many valid points were made during the shoot, and even some discrepancies showed up during the interviews. I loved hearing the director ask the questions at times because he pulled no punches. One problem to me, and it could have only been the copy I watched, was that Matt Damon's narration sounded like it was recorded in a tunnel. Regardless, this film deserved the Oscar and is a very informative documentary. Grade: A

Monday, June 27, 2011

HappyThankYouMorePlease (2011)

Remember Garden State? Well, Josh Radnor does. He managed to write, direct and act in a movie that has the same vibe.

Seven people whose lives intersect in New York City try to make their way through life. Each of them isn't succeeding as they'd hoped. Sam (Radnor) is a struggling writer who had his latest attempt rejected by a publisher. His best friend Annie (Malin Akerman) has Alopecia and both is and isn't afraid for it to be seen. Sam is also caring for a young boy who became separated from his foster family on the subway. Meanwhile, his cousin Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) and her boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) are stuck in a New York/Los Angeles debate that could have negative ramifications on their relationship. These five individuals are the core of a group that wants to stay as close as possible without totally interfering in each others' lives. But every time something good happens for one of them, multiple seemingly bad things follow. Maybe they're just kidding themselves.

This movie was good, but could have been a lot better. Each actor had great moments that were counteracted by some bad ones. The dialogue seemed very stilted and often lazy at times. The best character, hands down, was Sam #2 played by Tony Hale. He had equal parts strength and depth that made him very enjoyable to watch. I liked this probably more than most, but this won't make any top ten lists. Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

This is a war movie masquerading as an alien flick, and not a good movie at that. Yet another example of a trailer promising action that delivers on nothing.

In August 2011, several "meteors" begin falling to earth. People begin flock to the oceans to see the spectacle, but they soon learn these are no ordinary space rocks. Aliens rise from the water, march onto shore and open fire at anything in their paths. Time to bring in the Marines. Led by Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), a group of 15ish soldiers wander the streets of Santa Monica for citizens before the entire area is bombed off the map. The outer-world beings are very crafty, using human technology to track the Marines and work to terminate them. Nantz and his crew think they're one step ahead of the aliens, but it could be vice-versa. One thing's for sure, Nantz and the rest of the U.S. Marine Corps aren't backing down without a fight.

This movie is a sad combination of Independence Day, Saving Private Ryan, Avatar, War of the Worlds and Signs. Every plot point and every bit of dialogue seem to be taken directly from those films or other generic war films. I can't say much about the acting, because there really wasn't any. The one thing I liked, and this goes for all alien movies, is that they never stated where the aliens came from. We learn the why, the what and a little of the how, but not the where. Still, the movie just wasn't good. Look elsewhere. Grade: D+

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Tillman Story (2010)

Pat Tillman was a great man, there's no bones about it but, at least according to this film, his legacy will never be completely told. This movie tries to share as much as it can.

Tillman was a standout football player at Arizona State University who was drafted into the NFL by the Arizona Cardinals. The California native received many accolades during his playing career. However, after the 9/11 attacks, Pat and his brother Kevin joined the Army to serve their country in bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice. While doing recognizance work in Afghanistan in 2004, Pat Tillman was killed in action. Initially determined by military officials to be an insurgent ambush, the Army eventually concluded that Tillman had died by friendly fire. That's when all hell broke loose. Pat's family did not accept that as a valid excuse for the coverup. Tillman's mother and father began an arduous journey to determine the truth and, more importantly, get government leaders to admit fault. Easier said than done.

As with all documentaries, The Tillman Story had a clear agenda it was trying to bring to light. But it worked very well here. The facts are stated in black and white and it's up to the viewer to take away what they can. The slight problem I had with this film is it didn't tell me a lot more than what I already knew. It's a commonly held belief the feds covered up the circumstances surrounding Tillman's death, but other than that, only the scenes actually in Afghanistan were new to me. I haven't seen all of last year's Oscar nominated documentaries, but this probably could have made the cut. Grade: B+

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Cards on the table, I have never seen the original Tron but I was told it wasn't entirely necessary. I'm glad because this movie was solid as is.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been missing since 1989, leaving behind his young son and a multimillion dollar technology company. More than 20 years later, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is out of his element and still affected by his father's disappearance. One day, he gets a page from his father's old arcade. When he investigates, he's subsequently sucked into the Grid the elder Flynn used to visit. It is there that Sam runs into Clu (also Bridges), a rogue Kevin Flynn-lookalike created by Flynn as a way to help the Grid become perfect. After being saved from Clu, Sam finally sees his dad after two decades. Kevin has been trapped in the Grid since 1989 by Clu, who has since led a "coup" to seize control. Kevin, Sam and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) must now find a way to escape the Grid without letting Clu reach the outside world. Such a move would be disastrous.

My star rating may be a bit high for the somewhat hollow plot, but the graphics and feel of the movie were pretty cool. I'm not a fan of 3D movies, but I think this was an ideal project for the technology. Also, the graphics used to make Bridges look 20-some years younger were really impressive. The mouth didn't exactly sync up, but the rest worked well. Garrett Hedlund did a great job recapturing his role as 2005's new "It" actor, and Jeff Bridges basically played The Dude trapped in an alternate universe. A solid movie with great graphics...nothing more, nothing less. Grade: B

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blow Out (1981)

I have been hearing about this movie forever and it was finally available on Netflix. I can understand now what all the hullabaloo was about this's quite good.

Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a B movie sound technician who just flies by the seat of his pants and doesn't take his work seriously. One night while recording natural sounds on a bridge, he sees a car fly into the water. Terry dives into the water and saves a woman trapped in the backseat. While at the hospital, a man tells Jack to forget everything that happened. The deceased driver of the car was a political bigwig and presidential hopeful. Jack wasn't sure what he was shutting up about, but he does until he finds something shocking. Jack determines the crash was no accident, and now all he has to do is figure out the how and why. While this is going on, a serial killer is on the loose who may or may not be working in conjunction with the cover-up. Jack and the woman are now in an unwitting fight for their lives.

Despite it's very 80s style and music, Brian De Palma directed a great psychological thriller that keeps you guessing. Maybe I should've picked up on the ending sooner, but the pace of the film really helps the audience stay in the moment. I'd read a lot of reviews talking about the ending being lackluster. Without giving anything away, I can understand the argument but I thought the film wrapped up precisely as it should. I love a good thriller, and this is one for moviegoers like me. Grade: A-

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cedar Rapids (2011)

Ed Helms in a leading role doesn't exactly sound enticing, but he really pulled it off here. He was equal parts goofy, inept, sheltered and hilarious.

Naive insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) works for a small agency that has won the prestigious "Two Diamonds Award" three straight years at the annual conference in Cedar Rapids. When the company's top agent tragically dies (albeit in a hilarious manner), Lippe is thrust into the role and heads down for the event. This manboy has never been on a plane let alone to a "big" city like Cedar Rapids. He quickly finds he's out of his element. Lippe meets up with some other conventioneers including Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Big Z is the partier of the group. He's the one Lippe's boss told him to avoid. Of course, that wasn't going to happen. On this one trip, Lippe gets beat up, laid, extorted and completely inebriated. All in good fun.

Helms really owned the movie. It was his to control and he never let up. I was very impressed because the trailer for this movie and the reviews just didn't add up. Helms, Reilly and the rest of the supporting cast worked real well together. The biggest surprise was Anne Heche. I've hated her in everything she's done, but she was funny and a great counterbalance in this. I haven't seen much this year, but this could rank as one of the best comedies released. Most should enjoy this movie. Grade: B+