Monthly Archives: January 2010

Edge of Darkness (2010)

While I was watching Edge of Darkness, a conspiracy thriller that hearkens the return to acting for Mel Gibson, one thing kept sticking out to me, and no, it wasn?t the protracted ear-splitting “Bahstun” accents. One character makes comment about the current lowly state of affairs and says, “Everything’s illegal in Massachusetts.” That perked my ears, and then a second character says the exact same thing later in the movie, like it’s this flick’s summary, “It’s Chinatown.” What exactly does that mean specifically about Massachusetts? That the Bay State is somehow a nanny state, dictating behavior? Or is this a resigned admittance toward the futility of competing against the long arm of the law? I’ll tell you something that isn’t illegal in Massachusetts — gay marriage. They got a leg up on that one. This is the kind of internal conversation I had with myself while Gibson unraveled a fairly ho-hum conspiracy-of-the-week plot.

Detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) is a decorated Boston lawman. His grown daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), is visiting from her job when she starts throwing up blood. She needs to tell her father some important secrets about her workplace. But as the two are about to leave for the hospital, a man cries out “Craven,” and follows it with a thunderous shotgun blast. Emma gets the full force and dies in her father?s arms. The media assumes Thomas was the target and the gunman had an old score to settle. However, the more Craven investigates the more convinced he is that his daughter was the real target. He looks into Emma’s connection to some dead environmental activists caught breaking into her place of work. The head of the company (Danny Huston) has plenty of important defense contracts and suspicious behavior. As Craven tracks down the truth he is assisted by the mystifying Mr. Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a man normally hired to cover up any messy loose ends of governmental business. Jedburgh decides to work with Craven instead of against him, and the two men must fight for their lives.

The real reason to see this fairly pedestrian police thriller is because of Gibson. It’s been a long eight years since his last onscreen role, and I must say I’ve forgotten about what a great actor the man can be. When this guy gets mad, you can practically feel the intensity. Gibson is terrific at playing a man with simmering emotions that often get the better of him. The lines and wrinkles give him a new canvas to play with, letting his age help tell the story of his character. Gibson seems to have this inner insanity to him, an admirable bent of crazy manic anarchic energy (I highly suggest checking out some of the Jimmy Kimmel Show shorts he’s been apart of). It makes him hard to ignore. He peppers in what he can with his character, a long-standing member of the law thirsting for answers and vengeance. What’s enjoyable is that he doesn’t go about knocking down every door to make people pay. Craven plays each interrogation differently depending upon his prey; sometimes he uses a soft touch and sometimes he opts for the tried-and-true punch to the nose. It’s little touches like this that bring out details in the character, and Gibson knows how to exploit them for maximum drama. Does anyone play instantly bereaved better than this man? He has a real knack for nailing scenes where a character is confronted with the sudden death of a loved one. His face is full of tics, his eyes glass over, it’s like he has lost all control and given over to the amassing and conflicting emotions. This clearly isn’t one of Gibson’s best performances, but after eight yeas of absence I’m more than willing to give the man a little latitude. An angry and bereaved Gibson is a Gibson I can enjoy watching on the big screen no matter how rudimentary the caper.

Edge of Darkness belongs to Gibson, but Winstone pretty much comes out of nowhere and hijacks the movie. Every time his character leaves the scene you’re anxiously awaiting his return. He’s an intriguing character, which makes me wonder why he’s gotten such a languished subplot. He could have been better involved in the story but the script keeps him to the narrative’s edges until the climax. Though a bit hard to understand thanks to a severe case of the mumbles, Winstone is by far the most interesting character in the movie. He’s an expert on fixing problems who tires of the long hours of shadowy, dastardly work. This is surely a character worthy of his own tale, or at least equal placement in the narrative, but instead Jedburgh functions as a sly informant when he should be running the show.

The script pretty much treads water. It’s not anything that’s particularly bad, but this story is pretty much content to stick with the basics. This isn’t a dumb movie per se, thanks to screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (Lantana) adapting from the acclaimed BBC mini-series. Those guys know something about a crackling crime thriller, which this is not. The lizardly Huston couldn’t be any more obvious of a villain, but he’s not alone. The burly henchmen drive around in dark, tinted SUVs that seem to say that somebody got their nefarious goon driver’s license. This is the kind of movie that plays its hand early, telegraphing future revelations and double-crosses. When we’re introduced to a character right after Emma’s death, and the camera takes a deliberate amount of time hanging on that character’s pained expression, obviously we’ve been informed that this person is somehow connected. No prolonged reaction shot is ever meaningless in an action thriller. Every time Craven ties to gain information from a person of interest, they say, “I can’t talk. They’ll kill me,” and then that person is promptly killed as prophesied. You basically expect something “shocking” to happen every time a person leaves Craven’s presence (FYI: check both ways before crossing the street).

There’s a really engaging and politically active whistler blower story somewhere in here that could have used better attention. It seems the line between whistle-blower and activist is a thin one, and Craven must assemble enough evidence to make sure that his case cannot be dismissed as a kook. It’s an interesting dilemma, trying to assemble a compelling case that will hold up on objective scrutiny, that can’t be tossed out. That’s an interesting predicament considering the many eyes and ears of a large, legally autonomous corporate entity. Alas, that movie is not Edge of Darkness.

Gibson’s return to movie acting is definitely welcomed, even if it’s something as disposable as this. Edge of Darkness is a by-the-book conspiracy thriller that offers glimpses of something superior that could have been worked out. More attention could have been given to Winstone’s character. The whistleblower aspect could have been heightened and clarified. There could have been a bit more action and a little less blood. The bad guy could have been less obvious from the get-go. But in the end, there’s Gibson tapping into his mad Mel streak of appealing intensity. Not everybody can offer what Gibson does. It’s too bad then that Edge of Darkness fails to realize this virtue.

Nate’s Grade: B-

In the Loop (2009)

This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girl‘s Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst with how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.

Nate’s Grade: A

Legion (2010)

Just to be upfront, I am a big fan of action movies making use of Christian mythology (sorry if the use of the word “mythology” offends some). You tell me a tale about angels, demons, in a contemporary setting no less, and I’m hooked. You give those two sides weapons and have them fight over the fate of mankind, and I’m already revving my engines. So please know that no matter what the artistic achievements of Legion may be, I was predisposed to enjoying a movie that features the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) on the poster with a sword in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. The premise of Legion is that God has finally had it with mankind and is making good on his threat to “turn this thing around right now.” He’s sending a host of heavenly angels to … eliminate humanity. Michael rebelled, believing man was still capable of making good on its promise. So he fights alongside a handful of characters shacked up in Dennis Quaid’s greasy spoon diner in the middle of nowhere. The action isn’t really involving but the movies does have some cool moments, like when Michael goes mano-a-seraphim with Gabriel (a marble-mouthed Kevin Durand). Legion deals with an antagonist (God) that is so powerful that there have got to be arbitrary limits placed on that power. So the attacking angels don’t overwhelm the tiny diner with their superior numbers, nor does the Almighty just blink the troublemakers out of existence. The end doesn’t really give much in the way of clarity but I got what I wanted from a movie like Legion. Though, in retrospect, I really didn’t want sizzling acid popping from boils.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Cove (2009)

I never really wanted to watch the documentary, The Cove, and judging by its anemic box-office gross, I wasn’t the only one. A movie about dolphin slaughter felt like it was going to be a hard chunk of medicine, and I can’t really blame anybody who read about this acclaimed Sundance doc and said, “You know, I don’t feel like spending eight bucks to watch dolphins get harpooned to death.” I can’t argue with that and it was with great trepidation that I put the DVD into my player, hiding behind a blanket, dreading the animal cruelty and self-righteousness that would soon wait. And then a funny thing happened. In the first five minutes I really got into the movie, my nervous tension disappeared, and I was captivated by one of the best-edited and most thrilling movies of the year. For the squeamish, rest assured, the dolphin death footage isn’t graphic and used rather sparingly and tastefully. This is not just a PETA snuff film.

The Cove has two storylines at play that converge with a unified goal. The first explores the life of Ric O’Barry, the world’s premier dolphin trainer responsible for all those playful porpoises on TV’s Flipper (he even lived in the TV family’s house by the dock). It’s because of that popular TV show that the dolphin craze began where people wanted to see them do tricks and people wanted to swim with the cute dolphins. Sea parks sprouted up around the world and many dolphins were sold into captivity. O’Barry then drastically changed his mind about dolphins living in captivity after the death of one of the Flippers. Dolphins need to consciously breath, so they can actually hold their breath and die, which is what happened. The Flipper dolphin committed “suicide” in O’Barry’s arms, or so he says (he may be projecting a bit of his own guilt). He has been fighting ever since for dolphins to be freed and often O’Barry gets arrested for his activism efforts.

O’Barry’s biggest target is Taiji, Japan. It is this small coastal town that supplies dolphins to most of the world. Researchers and entertainment trainers will take their pick of the litter and the rest aren’t so lucky. The remaining dolphins get transferred to a small inlet where coastline bystanders cannot see and where large “Keep Out” signs are met with barbed wire. Then the waters run red. Tens of thousands of dolphins are slaughtered every fall and O’Barry has been trying to get the word out for years but has been stymied by the local fishermen, the meat corporations, and the Japanese government. Director Louie Psihoyos, a critical member of the Ocean Preservation Society, intended to make a film about depleting ocean reefs and intended to have O’Barry be one part of an overall bigger picture. Then, while traveling in Taiji, he became convinced that the real story was exposing the secret dolphin killings and why what goes on in that deadly cove matters to the rest of Japan and the world.

What hooked me was that The Cove is structured like a real-life espionage thriller. Psihoyos and his technical crew wanted to go the legal route but were blocked by opposing forces. So he assembles a team of experts to infiltrate the Taiji cove and document what exactly is going on there. He recruits the best deep diver who can plunge to record-breaking depths on a single breath of air. He recruits a model maker at special effects studio ILM to make convincing rocks that will house hidden cameras. They recruit a man who knows all about cameras and body imaging technology. They even get an expert on flying toy helicopters so they can plant a camera on one. The director says it himself on camera, that he was gathering a real-life Ocean’s Eleven team. The tone of the movie follows suit, making for some great suspense. As soon as O’Barry enters Taiji, he’s tailed by several police officers and they even interrogate him in his hotel lobby to ascertain the purpose of his visit (caught on hidden camera). The billion-dollar dolphin entertainment/meat industry hires people to do nothing else but to film O’Barry himself, keeping track of his movements and trying to provoke an emotional reaction to disparage his cause and boot him from town. We then chart how far the connections go, all the way through to Japanese government officials bribing other Pacific island nations to join their fight to overturn whaling laws. It’s fascinating and frustrating as hell to watch.

Psihoyos is a rather accomplished filmmaker in his own right, spicing up an intriguing tale with some visual pizzazz and a great sense of pacing. This thing just flies by. It’s strange to say that a documentary about killing dolphins is one of the most gripping thrillers of the year, but there it is. This is an impeccably crafted opinion piece with a dash of espionage excitement. The movie is indignant, yes, but refrains from being self-righteous or condescending. At no point did I feel beaten over the head with some activist propaganda, though the film is clearly one-sided. Psihoyos manages to weave in a lot of useful information. I was dreading the actual dolphin slaughter footage even though, from a structural standpoint, that was the climax of the movie people have been waiting for. The footage is mostly at long angles, though you do see Japanese fishermen repeatedly jabbing harpoons into dolphin shapes. The most disturbing moments are earlier when a mortally wounded dolphin spaces past the nets and tries to swim for freedom. It’s spitting blood and wildly trying to break free but it eventually drowns. The final image of the hard-won footage is the blood-soaked shores of the cove, which are a deep, unsettling red that reminds you of a full-on Biblical plague. An easy plea to emotional appeals, perhaps, but effective nonetheless. I have no shame in admitting that The Cove put me to tears on three separate occasions.

So is there really a difference here between killing and eating dolphins and the West’s industry of killing and eating cows? Is this all just a matter of cultural insensitivity? That’s a harder question. Which animals do we draw the line at eating? Is there a moral disparity between eating a hamburger and eating a dolphin, or eating a cat or a dog? I don’t know. Personally, given my Western biases and everything, I become repulsed when it comes to inhumane treatment to animals and when self-aware creatures are used for food. I am a content meat-eater but that doesn’t mean I want to snack on a dog sandwich. Certain animals are just more self-aware than others, which muddy the moral waters. When an animal reaches that sense of awareness then it becomes an even stronger ethical dilemma when it comes to killing them, because they are more cognizant of what is happening and the life being taken from them. It may all sound like semantics to some, but that’s my personal stance. To literally quote George Orwell’s famous novel: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” That may seem hypocritical to people but I’d argue it’s a reigning opinion among a majority of Americans. The counter argument is that Westerners know that cows are being led to the slaughter, whereas the Japanese are purposely kept in the dark about the nature of the dolphin massacres. To make matters worse, dolphin meat is incredibly high in levels of mercury and the meat is labeled as other fish. The majority of the Japanese do not know that they are consuming poisoned dolphin meat. Americans at least know what they’re biting into (the jury’s still out with hot dogs).

The Cove only gives you the Western perspective on the subject because that’s what fits its agenda. It does take a few swipes at the arguments for dolphin hunting. The Japanese government views them as pests needed to be dealt with and blames the porpoises for declining fish levels, which to any rational thinking person would sound absurd. Which seems like the more likely scenario: pollution and over fishing lead to declining levels, or the sea creatures that have lived on the planet for millions of years are now to blame? The other token argument is that whale and dolphin killing is a part of traditional Japanese historical culture. This might hold true for some people; however, upon some minor research you find that the whaling tradition goes back only a couple centuries, no further than it did for European countries that have given up the practice.

But what the movie really fails to explore is why. Why do the Japanese fishermen, when offered the same money NOT to kill dolphins, decide to keep killing them? What is the psychology at foot in Taiji that links the town with annual slaughters? It’s a shame that Psihoyos devoted the entire bulk of the film to getting the footage. The focus of The Cove is a bit limited but I understand why. There needed to be an attainable goal: get the secret footage and spread the word. The movie is too entertaining and harrowing to really knock its limited scope, but The Cove could have been a much fuller depiction of this bloody reality.

The Cove builds a compelling, if one-sided, case condemning the ongoing actions of Taiji, Japan and the greater government. The conspiracy unfolds layer by layer and the movie ends up rallying others to action (O’Barry says you’re either an activist or an “inactivist”). I don’t know if anything will actually change now that the footage is out there, but at least people can be more aware of the annual dolphin slaughter. And after a year of wrangling, it appears that The Cove will be released in Japan this spring. Let’s see what kind of response comes out then and whether the Japanese are willing to pay the yen equivalent of eight bucks to watch dolphins die.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Book of Eli (2010)

Where did the Hughes brothers go? Albert and Allen Hughes have four movies to their names, one of them a documentary about pimps, and their last flick was 2001’s From Hell. I know that Jack the Ripper thriller underperformed at the box office, starring a pre-Pirates Johnny Depp, but was it enough to throw these guys in movie jail for nine years? The Hughes brothers are talented filmmakers, first evidenced by their debut feature Menace II Society, which they wrote and directed when they were only twenty years old. I actually really liked From Hell. I get that it isn’t anywhere as complex as the source material from famous comics scribe Alan Moore, but the movie was slick, stylish, twisty and twisted and satisfying (although, Heather Graham has the worst accent in the history of movies). Where have these brothers been all this time? Nine years later, the Hughes brothers take a whack at the popular genre of the moment –Apocalyptic Cinema. The Book of Eli kind of comes across like a Hollywood version of The Road. It’s all about duplicating the look, without getting too bleak, and failing to replicate the sense of humanity in desperation. Why worry about that when you can have explosions?

It’s been 30 years since the sun scorched the Earth. Food is scarce. Gangs roam the highways. The law is a forgotten concept. Eli (Denzel Washington) is a loner heading westerly and trying to make out a meager existence. He takes the boots off a dead man, hunts emaciated cats for food, and looks for a safe shelter from the blistering sun. He struts into a dusty town looking for clean water. The town is under the rule of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man in search of a very specific book for his own purposes. It just so happens that Eli is in possession of this book. Eli refuses to hand over his property, speaking about his mission to transport the book to where it belongs. Carnegie sends his thugs out to kill Eli and retrieve the book. Helping Eli is Solara (Mila Kunis), a teenage prostitute who feels Eli has answers that nobody else has.

What we have here is a post-apocalyptic Western. Denzel is the lone drifter that comes into a town besieged by lawlessness or a corrupt agency of power. He even has a fight in a saloon that doubles as a whorehouse. He takes on an unlikely younger apprentice and enforces his own moral code through a series of shootouts. It just so happens that in Eli, he also has a giant machete and knows kung-fu. This is pretty strict genre stuff, mixing in apocalyptic elements for some extra flavor. The Hughes brothers give everything an ashy grimy gloss, making the most of desolate locations they shot in New Mexico (“When you need some place that looks like the end of the world, film New Mexico!”). The sparse locations and desaturated cinematography do well in establishing an unforgiving reality of the landscape.

The Hughes brothers certainly have a sense of style when it comes to the camera lens, yet they don’t approach being too self-conscious with their visuals. There’s an extended fight sequence that plays entirely in silhouette. There isn’t an overabundance of special effects in the film to clutter up the bangs and booms. There is one shootout outside a home (with Michael Gambon no less) that mimics some of the unblinking camerawork of Children of Men, swinging from side to side throughout the escalating firefight. It’s a fun visual motif that thrusts the viewer in the middle of the action. Otherwise, the action is all fairly standard stuff. It?s entertaining to watch Denzel take out a bushel of bad guys time and again, but what does that add up to with such a worn out story and half-hearted characterization? The script by Gary Whitta is heavy on apocalyptic mood and light on details. Cue more ass kicking.

Washington is stoic, almost Eastwood-like in his grit. He’s an easy antihero to root for, the reluctant avenger that manages to slice and dice his way through trouble. I won?t say this movie forces Washington to stretch his reserve of acting muscles, but it is undeniably pleasing to watch him perform his own fighting stunts. Oldman hasn’t gotten an opportunity to play a scenery-chewing villain in quite a while. Let’s face it; Evil Oldman will always overrule Good Oldman. This man was created to play sociopaths that have no ability to control the volume of their voice. This man needs a chance to bellow once every movie. Kunis proved she was a capable actress in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but her role is fairly limited here to sidekick. She stares with her dark eyes and gets to hold a gun. That’s about it. The Hughes brothers have populated their post-apocalyptic world with familiar faces. Tom Waits is a merchant, Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) as the Number One Henchman, Jennifer Beals as the blind mother to Solaris, and Gambon as a well-armed homeowner with an appetite for human flesh. That?s a good stable of actors to fill out a bunch of stock roles. It certainly makes The Book of Eli more entertaining.

The religious element doesn’t dominate the film but it does serve as food for thought. You see the book of Eli’s in high demand is actually he King James Bible. But you see, this isn’t any bible wrapped in leather with a metallic locked binding (all this for a Bible?); this is the LAST BIBLE ON EARTH. That is why Carnegie craves it. In the 30 years since the vague apocalyptic event, apparently mankind rounded up all the Bibles and burnt them, perhaps to express their displeasure with God. Eli operates on the premise that Denzel has the only Bible in the known world, which just seems downright silly. Did people search through every habitable dwelling, every library, and every hotel drawer? There have to be hidden Bibles out there. Even in this extreme setting, it seems to strain credibility to think that mankind is left with one copy of the most widely published book in the history of the world.

Ignoring this fact, the religious element remains nebulous even though the film chronicles the journey of the Christian text. God is referred briefly but mostly the talk steers around the ideas of “faith” and “fate” and “the right path.” Eli feels he has been chosen for a special mission, and so he trudges west with his eyes on the prize. Carnegie wants to use the Bible as a “weapon” to pervert people’s faith into giving him more power. He wants to abuse religion as a motivational force to expand the reach of his control. Here’s the thing though, Carnegie has control over a town already and rules by fear. This seems to be working fine for him. So he wants to rule by love instead, using the Bible to spread the Gospel of discipleship? It’s somewhat unclear what exactly Carnegie plans to use the text for especially considering that most of the remaining population is illiterate anyway. He could just as easily hold up any book (The Da Vinci Code is shown, why not that one? It even has “code” in the title) and proclaim it the Word of God. It’s not like these people, struggling just to eat and find water, are going to question the power structure.

Not content with being a competent genre film, The Book of Eli ends on one of those ghastly twist endings that forces you to rethink everything that came before it. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but this twist certainly leads a charge toward building a counterargument toward disproving it. I won?t get into particulars but it seems unlikely that Denzel would be as good a shot as he was if the twist holds up.

The Book of Eli has its share of thrills and some interesting visual style, but there isn’t anything here you haven?t seen in hundreds of other post-apocalyptic movies. The dusty landscapes, the biker gangs, the aviator goggles, the cryptic threats, the necessity for leather as a fashion statement. This isn’t a bad movie by any means; it’s just another entry in a cluttered genre that, with our renewed fascination of the end times, is only getting more cluttered. Washington and the assortment of actors put in fine work but it’s ultimately the story that lets them down. This is a by-the-books genre flick with a touch more style courtesy of the Hughes brothers and a touch more gravitas courtesy of Mr. Washington. My advice to the human race: stock up on Bibles. Apparently, in the post-apocalyptic future, they will be more valuable than gold. Invest now while you still can. I got 15 of them and will entertain all offers.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Extract (2009)

Writer/director Mike Judge’s third movie isn’t quite as funny or just plain fun as his previous pair, Office Space and Idiocracy. Set in a local factory, we follow the misadventures of the boss (Jason Bateman) as he deals with incompetent employees, looming lawsuits, and a wife (Kristen Wiig) who he feels disconnected with. What Judge has is two competing movies; one of them garners the bulk of the first 45 minutes and proves to be funny. The other gets most of the second half and plays out sloppy and dumb. The more interesting half involves Bateman trying to feel guilt-free about wanting to have an affair, so his friend (Ben Affleck, very funny) hires a clueless gigolo to seduce the wife. This scheme actually works but causes humorous complications, like when the gigolo keeps going back for more. This comedic scenario would be enough for one movie. The other half of the tale involves Bateman trying to sell the company but the buyer is wary of an impending lawsuit due to an accident on the work floor that left a man sans his testicles (so much wasted potential here). Mila Kunis is the sexy con artist behind the scenes, encouraging the ball-less worker not to settle. Obviously Judge had work-related gags he wanted to tackle, but he proves that his real interests lie in the complicated relationship comedy. Extract fumbles forward not knowing what kind of movie its really wants to be, so it settles for hackneyed solutions and abrupt endings. Extract would have been a better comedy completely removed from the workplace.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Crazy Heart (2009)

Crazy Heart is more than a country tune come to life. This is a transfixing slice-of-life flick that serves up a big piece of country lifestyle. This is a dusty, slow burning character piece where consummate actors just dissolve inside the bodies of their characters. Jeff Bridges is country music legend “Bad Blake,” a chain-smoking, alcoholic, hard-living dude who’s given up on everybody in his life, he included. Fame long gone, he performs from hole-in-the-wall bars to bowling alleys for small change and the embrace of middle-aged groupies in seedy motels. Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist, interviews Blake and the two seem unable to keep their flirtation at bay. She’s prone to making bad decisions, and he’s looking for somebody that will actually care about him as a person. The relationship between these two is starkly realistic, and the actors interact with astoundingly unrestrained intimacy; there isn’t a glimpse, a pivot, or a nuzzle that feels trite. The love-of-good-woman-grants-second-chance plot device may feel overdone, but Crazy Heart is more than the sum of two great performances (and they are great). There’s a heavy, elegiac pall to the movie, where tiny details quiver with insight about Blake’s life. Writer/director Scott Cooper explores the grimy, dismal lifestyle of a man living on the fumes of fame, rethinking his life’s choices and becoming reinvigorated with creative inspiration. Even better, everyone performs their own singing and they are all, without fail, excellent. Who knew that Colin Farrell could be a convincing country music star?

Nate’s Grade: A-

Daybreakers (2010)

Taking a cue from zombie cinema, Daybreakers takes the idea of vampire-as-virus to an apocalyptic crescendo. The world is populated almost exclusively by vampires now. Human beings are farmed for blood but they are in such limited supplies. You see there is an extreme blood shortage because the vampires have lived beyond their means. That’s right, it’s a consumer consumption/environmental metaphor. The limited resources are dire because if vampires go without human blood they begin to devolve into senseless, winged mutating monsters known as “subsiders.” The poor cannot afford the skyrocketing blood prices so they are most fated to doom, while the rich argue that the blood supplies need to go to families first and not be wasted on the lesser dregs. The U.S. vampiric military, when not hunting humans, shackles the subsiders and marches them into the sunlight to be executed. Daybreakers has a lot more on its mind than most vampire movies, and it’s plainly fascinating to explore the realities of a world run by vampires (cars that drive during the day, the Subwalk, blood in your coffee). For most of its running length, Daybreakers is an intriguing setup that makes room for cool visceral action and social commentary. Then in the final act it sort of devolves itself into one big, dumb action movie. Ethan Hawke is a blood scientist trying to work on a synthetic substitute for a super vampire corporation that, of course, is evil. He stumbles upon an outlandish “cure” for vampirism and wants to resurrect humanity. This leads to a climax where Hawke and his human warriors wage battle inside the corporate HQ. For a promising concept, it’s depressing that Daybreakers had to end in such a typical manner. At least the vampires explode in the sun instead of sparkling.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Thanks to a rambunctious comedic spirit and some delightfully colorful visuals, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is absurdly amusing from start to finish. I was relieved when this animated family film stuck by its own manic comic sensibilities instead of pandering with scatological humor and bizarre and instantly dated pop culture references. The story has the familiar “believe in yourself” elements but it takes it another tasty level. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (MTV’s vastly underrated Clone High) pack the story with jokes of all levels, running gags with surprising payoffs, puns that manage to be funny, satirical one-liners, imaginative visual gags, and inventive action sequences when the film becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet of disaster movies. The pacing is frenetic and the eclectic vocal cast (Bruce Campbell as the villainous mayor! Mr. T as sheriff! Neil Patrick Harris as a talking monkey!) really, as the film says, “carpe some diem.” This isn’t an emotionally engaging movie whatsoever but it’s one of the best comedies of 2009 and certainly one of the most jam-packed, fun 90 minutes you could ask to sit through. Just prepare to be extremely hungry afterward.

Nate’s Grade: A-

District 9 (2009)

I can’t believe I forgot to review this some how. The sleeper hit of the summer, District 9 is an intelligent, and rather obvious, apartheid metaphor, and a grandly executed action thriller with a strong moral compass. Aliens crammed into ghettos and being mistreated and abused? Sounds like Alien Nation to those with longer memories, however, writer/director Neill Blomkamp forges a docu-drama that manages to be bristling with ethical questions and kick-ass action. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement, so much so that I was trying to will the characters onscreen to take certain precautions. Blomkamp manages to take shots at some easy targets, like shady corporations and mercenaries, but that doesn’t make the movie any less affecting. The movie belongs to actor Sharlto Copley, who begins the film as a dithering bureaucrat and ends as a truly unlikely action hero, and you buy every single step of this man’s satisfying emotional arc. While the Academy is picky when it comes to genre films, Copley deserves Oscar consideration; I haven’t seen a more compelling performance by an actor all year. The special effects are astounding, and they were accomplished on a scant budget of 30 million, which is probably what Transformers 2 spent on one explosion. District 9 makes you feel that movies can still surprise you, as long as we have visionary, intelligent life working outside the studio system.

Nate’s Grade: A

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