California

August 12, 2018

A Simplistic Review: Better Luck Tomorrow

Before all the “Fast and the Furious” sequels, Justin Lin was making films like “Better Luck Tomorrow.” It’s a pretty paint-by-numbers flick, but there is something that draws me in. Before MTV went full in on “Teen Mom” and “Jersey Shore” they used to be involved in some great films like “Election” and this film.

“Luck” explores the “plight” of six Asian-American overachievers bored with their lives who either decide to star in porn or start committing up petty crimes, and eventually murder. There are some interesting socio-political ideas here when it comes to achievement and how Asian-Americans are perceived by their peers, and it’s expertly shot. It’s one of those lost gems that really gets lost in time.

February 23, 2015

Map to the Stars

HOLLYWEIRD

Map to the Stars – Hollyweird

Quick story about David Cronenberg; My earliest memory of his work is actually not even a film he directed, it’s a film that he appeared in. As a kid I remember watching “Nightbreed” and being scared out of my mind. Sure there are plenty of monsters and mutants in the film, but the one thing that stood out to me was a guy in a mask with a zipper and buttons for eyes. Only later would I find out that man behind the mask was David Cronenberg, the same guy behind classics like “The Fly” and “Scanners.” In the past decade or so, Cronenberg has taken a departure form the “body horror” that had made him famous, and has concentrated on more intimate character pieces like “Eastern Promises” and “Cosmopolis.” Now, in what I might call his most interesting work in quite some time, Cronenberg takes on Hollyweird and all of it’s kookiness in “Map to the Stars,” starring Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, and Mia Wasikowska.

The skinny on “Map” is this; young Agatha (Wasikowska) arrives in town and is greeted by limo driver, Jerome (Pattinson). Agatha has just gotten into town via Jupiter, Florida and is looking for Benji Weiss, the young star of the “Bad Babysitter” series of films. Meanwhile, we meet Havana (Moore) the daughter of movie star who died in a fire who is receiving counseling from Dr. Stafford Weiss (Cusack). Havana gets word from her agent that a film is being produced about her mother’s life and naturally Havana feels she is best actress for the role. The film plays out where we learn more about all of the major characters in the film and how weird do things get? Well, this is a Cronenberg film after all……

Based on reviews that I’ve been reading about “Map” this is really a love it or hate it flick. I’ve read that some people are disgusted about the insinuated and pretty much apparent incest connotations, as well as the casual nudity and dark subject matter. This is where I say “grow up!” Sure, some of the content is a little over-the-top, but you’d be a fool to not think things like this happen in Hollywood.

The interwoven plot is interesting and the film is a Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, and Bret Easton Ellis mash-up of insane and maniacal proportions. At first I thought this film was actually written by someone of Ellis’ ilk, but upon further inspection the writing duties went to Bruce Wagner, who is best known for writing “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors.” It’s odd for Cronenberg to go with a writer that has so few credits to his name, but the writing is actually very well done, visceral, and perfect for the film.

Now, a lot of people were in love with Julianne Moore’s performance in “Still Alice,” but I would go as far as saying that her turn in “Map” was vastly superior in it’s weirdness and fearlessness. We all know that Moore is a great actress that has been overlooked for awards for years, but wouldn’t it have been nice if she was rewarded for a role that required more than just having an ailment and having to overcome it? I’d say yes, but I’m sure a lot of people would go against me. Outside of Moore, the supporting cast is solid, and it’s good to see that John Cusack is still getting work that matters and not falling into the same trap that has confounded Nicholas Cage for the better part of a decade. I don’t know what it is, but Cage and Cusack to me are almost one in the same. “Map” also shows me more of the talent that I know is residing inside of Robert Pattinson. He had a great turn in “Cosmopolis” and showed me more in last year’s under-appreciated “The Rover” and albeit a small role, he is still good in this film and his scenes with Mia Wasikowska are small, but tragic.

All in all, “Map to the Stars” is an interesting and dark take on celebrity and the toll it can take on those with weak constitutions. While this film does seem more in the wheelhouse of someone like Lynch, it’s great to see David Cronenberg’s take on Hollywood since he is mostly a director who is always on the outside looking in, on his own accord of course. And while I do like that he is taking more chances on projects like “Cosmopolis” and “A Dangerous Method” I would like to see him get back to his older, body horror work one day.

Fun Fact: Hollywood was established in 1853 with a single adobe hut just outside of Los Angeles, California.

November 6, 2014

Zodiac (2007)

PACING

Zodiac – Pacing

There are certain films you see once, and they quickly dissolve from your mind. Not because they are bad by any means, its usually, at least for me, that they are so massive, engrossing, or emotionally investing that my body’s automatic response is to forget about them. The best example I can think of at this time is “Inception.” While visually stunning, the film as a whole is still very hard to wrap my head around and I’ve avoided watching it ever since seeing it in the theater. Again, it’s not because I don’t like it, and hell, who knows, maybe if I saw the film again, I wouldn’t like it, especially since it doesn’t have an end credit sequence……anyway. This brings me to “Zodiac” probably one of the most slept films in David Fincher’s filmography. It’s taut, gritty, and paced to perfection with the addition of great acting performances and a truly engrossing story that you nearly forget it based on an actual unsolved case.

“Zodiac” tells the true story of the Zodiac murders that took place across Northern, and possibly South California between 1966 and 1972. Shortly after a unsolved murder in 1969 in Vallejo, CA, a letter is sent to the San Francisco Chronicle which details the crime and claims that another murder was also committed nearly a year prior by someone calling themselves “Zodiac.” Spanning the course of nearly 25 years, “Zodiac” recounts the effort of journalist Paul Avery, cartoonist Robert Graysmith, and SFPD Inspector,  Dave Toschi, as their lives intersect closely with possible suspects, and the obsession to catch Zodiac that nearly destroys their lives.

Throughout high school and college, I had an obsession with true crime and serial killers. I wanted to know the stories behind the crimes and what really made people tick. Some of the most infamous murderers of all time seem like something out of a movie, which makes the most sense why some of the most unnerving horror and suspense films have been based on serial killers like Ed Gein, Albert Fish, and Dennis Lynn Rader, the BTK Killer. However, if you look at the glut of direct-to-DVD and made-for-TV films about serial killers most of them are, for lack of a better term, lackluster, to say the least. At first glance, you might almost think that “Zodiac” might have the same fate, but there is pedigree to spare.

It’s easy to forget that this is even a David Fincher film. Taking into account how diversified his filmography is, “Zodiac” seems like the start of a new Fincher direction. Moving away from dark, gritty horror/suspense films such as “Se7ev” and “The Game,” “Zodiac” was at the time his most mature effort to date, not mention his longest film up to that point, clocking in at 157 minutes (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” would top it the following year with a run-time of 166 minutes). While some might see the long run-time as a negative, I thought it gave Fincher enough time to introduce characters, detail the crimes, and get the point across that obsession; either good or bad, corrupts and destroys nearly everything.

While “Zodiac” could be considered the beginning of a new Fincher era, this film was also a breeding ground for what we could expect from Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo. And of course the renaissance of Robert Downey, Jr., who only a year later would become Tony Stark. While the film is called “Zodiac” the infamous murderer is pretty much a plot point or a foil to the actors. We are witness to his murder spree, but it’s the emotion and the portrayals by Downey, Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo that drive the film from beginning to end. Fincher is also able to create a giant puzzle where it’s the job of the audience of what to believe and reach their own conclusion. Unlike other killers throughout history, the Zodiac Killer was never caught, which creates a true mystery film where there is no right or wrong answer as to who is the true culprit in the crimes.

While “Zodiac” didn’t really get it’s due in the theater, if you are a fan of true crime, or simply great direction by a master who is dedicated to all of the little details that make a film special, than this film is for you. It features an engrossing story, fine performances, and it delivers where other films about serial killers fall short.

Fun Fact: Over the past 100 years, there have been nearly 20 reported serial killers in the state of California.

March 5, 2014

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station – Crushing

CRUSHING

Adapting a news story into a film is always a tricky proposition.  For the most part, there isn’t much suspense since the end game for people involved in said story is known.  However, when you’re able to create suspense and make an audience forget about the ending and concentrate on what is happening in front of them, that’s the definition of film-making.  “Fruitvale Station” is a crushing cinematic experience that explores race relations, social media, and laws that discriminate against young minorities, even in a state as progressive as California.

“Fruitvale” is based on the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART officers on New Years Day 2009 in Oakland, California.  The film begins with cellphone video footage of the arrest and shooting of Grant by the officers.  After the first harrowing few minutes the film turns to the last 24 hours in Oscar’s life, a 22-year old drug dealer trying to walk the line to provide for his girlfriend and 4-year old daughter.

Ryan Coogler, who directed “Fruitvale”, has created an experience where you forget about the inevitable ending for Oscar and concentrate on his life, which makes the ending all the more crushing.  Michael B. Jordan, who portrays Grant, shows how far he’s come from playing Wallace on “The Wire.”  Jordan gives a performance that was certainly overlooked for some major awards in 2013.  While most people will not know the nuances of Grant outside of his friends and family, Jordan’s performance is likeable and heartbreaking and you feel the pain of Grant’s mother, played excellently by Octavia Spencer, when her son is ripped away from her come the end of “Fruitvale.”

This might be oft-topic, but ironically enough, Jordan has also been named as the next Johnny Storm in the upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot at Fox.  As many may know, typically in comic lore, Storm, aka, The Human Torch, is a white character.  With that news, you would have thought that an entire fan-base had been shot in the back.  Sure, this comparison might be a bit tacky, but it goes to show the division that we still have as a society.  If as many people got upset about the slaying of Grant in Oakland as people did at the fact that a black actor was set the play a traditionally white comic book character we might be on the right track as a people.  My two-cents of course would be this; why not make both Johnny and Sue Storm, aka, The Invisible Girl, both black as opposed to explaining away the fact that one of them had to be adopted or something else to that extent.  Just had to put that out there.

It’s unfortunate that films like “Fruitvale” have to be made.  As a society we continue to see tragedies like Grant’s death and more recently the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.  As long as humans continue to exists there will be shootings and crimes against people that are based on profiling and prejudices.  The triumph, if you will, of “Fruitvale” is the hopeful aspect that maybe white people don’t need to be scare of black people.  The portrayal of Grant isn’t glamorous and overblown, it’s a portrayal of someone trying to get their act together while also trying to rise above stereotypes.  One of the most powerful scenes in the film is Oscar meeting a young white woman (Ahna O’Reilly) in a grocery store.  At first you see hesitation on her part, a typical “white” response, when Oscar asks her what she’s looking for.  After a moment however, and Oscar picking up on her hesitation, there is a very human moment between the two.  The time is over to be scared of young black men white people!

Overall, “Fruitvale” showcases not only a rising star in Jordan, but also is a touchstone for race in cinema.  If “12 Years A Slave” is the best film of 2013, than “Fruitvale” is its more accessible and relatable younger sibling.

“Fun” Fact:  BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit and has been in operation since 1972.

January 31, 2013

Holiday Hangover: Savages

Savages – C’mon

There are times when a film comes around that you hear about, wait to see it, finally see it, are extremely pleased with the results, but come the end of the movie you’re thinking to yourself, “What just happened?” That’s the film “Savages,” where come the end of the film, or what you think is the end of the film, you scream out, “C’MON!

When you think about Oliver Stone you have to think about the amount of directors that he’s influenced;  I would bet one American dollar that there isn’t a director, living or dead, that would say they weren’t influenced by either the writing or directing talents of Stone.  He uses spiritual imagery in an effective way, loves to show sex and violence, but there is still a tongue-in-cheek element when he goes to the extreme, especially in his post-“Platoon” work.  Lately he’s had his ups-and-downs, trying to cash in on old ideas (“Wall Street”), but when “Savages” was announced I was a little excited.  It looked and felt like old-school Stone, circa “Natural Born Killers.”  Gritty, bloody, sexy, and violent.  Even the cast was young and hip.  So why was “Savages” a let down?  Let’s take a walk.

“Savages” stars Blake Lively as O, or Ophelia, who is “shared” by two independent pot growers/sellers, played by Aaron Johnson and “Mr. Chicken Burrito” himself, Taylor Kitsch.  Everything is going swimmingly for the three until they turn down a request from Baja Cartel Mistress, Elena.  Things go from bad to worse for the three as they find themselves at war with the Cartel.  The violence is brutal at times, but what would you expect from a vicious Mexican Cartel.  Just read or listen to the news and I’m sure you’ll read, or hear, much worse.

Lively is the backbone of this film, and rightfully so.  I think she kind of gets a raw deal in Hollywood due to her “Gossip Girl” ties, but she holds her own in “Savages” and gives a pitch-perfect performance of a girl who is both the “damsel in distress” and the “strong heroine.”  If you want to see Lively in another good performance check out “The Town.”  For someone who you would take a quick glance at and write her off as just eye-candy, she can act, and takes chances.  We need more Blake Livelys and less Brooklyn Deckers and whoever that girl is who can’t close her mouth in “Transformers 3.”

The plot twists and turns and keeps you on your toes throughout.  You really never know who is the next person to get killed or get caught in the crossfire, and the stakes are pretty high throughout the film.  That is until the “end.”  If Stone had more balls he would have ended the film ten minutes earlier.  The “end” is what you would have expected the whole film, but I guess that’s the whole point.  You expect something Shakespearean, but you get a curveball that really makes you say, once again, “C’MON!”  Like “Hamlet” you expect a tragedy, and you get close, but I of course won’t spoil the fun, because all in all “Savages” is actually the best Oliver Stone film since probably “Killers” or I might even go as new as “Any Given Sunday.”

The one thing you’ll take away from “Savages” is that Stone still has it.  He can still make a film just as visceral as he did in his younger days.  After years of dealing with George W Bush, September 11th, and going back to “Wall Street” there was a question as to whether Stone wanted to deal with darker subject matter. We all know that he’s an intellectual, and a thinking man’s filmmaker, but it was great to see him go back to his hungrier and darker ways with “Savages.”

Fun Fact:  As of 2012, according to the U.S. Government, the largest and most dangerous cartel in Mexico is Los Zetas, which is an off-shoot of the Gulf Cartel.

November 6, 2012

Election Day Special: Bulworth

Bulworth – Gimmick

Now here’s a gimmick for you; take Warren Beatty, a poster child for White America, make him rap and booty dance with Halle Barry while dressed in mid-90s hip-hop fashions all the while on the run from a supposed assassination attempt.  Sound good?  Well, some of it is, while some of it comes off as a feeble attempt to address the fact that politicians are just put in place to give “we the people” a sense that we “voted” them into office while the truth is that they are in the pockets of interest groups and lobbyists.  That’s 1998’s “Bulworth” in a nutshell.

I could stop the review right there, but watching “Bulworth” in my less politically enlightened days and watching it now proves to me that this film didn’t get the credit it deserved when it was released* and how it was a zeitgeist for politics not only in the Clinton-era, but in the Obama-era now.

As I prefaced, “Bulworth” is the story of California Democratic Senator, Jay Billington Bulworth, running for re-election in 1996 (which was also the year in which Bill Clinton was running for re-election against GOP candidate, Bob Dole).  In hope of keeping his seat, Sen. Bulworth has transitioned from a typically Liberal stance, to a more “back to traditional American values” Conservative stance.  Upset with his new political agenda, as well as his broken marriage, Bulworth takes a contract out on his life in hopes of his daughter inheriting a substantial life insurance policy, which is given to Bulworth by an insurance lobbyist .  Not fearing reprisal, Bulworth begins a newer “political agenda” where he takes off his filter and starts telling his supporters and critics what politicians really think about them.  From going to a black church and explaining that the African-American community doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of politics and telling the Jewish community that their Jewish paranoia is actually real, Bulworth lets it all hang out, including his tongue while dancing with Halle Barry in an after-hours hip-hip club.

Beatty, a known friend of the Democratic establishment, skewers politicians from the left and right, as well as the 24 hour media coverage of politics, which plays a major part in the overall plot.  He points out how struggling members of our society get swept under the rug and find other “elected officials,” case in point, Don Cheadle’s drug dealer character, L.D.

Speaking of Beatty and Cheadle, the acting is quite strong.  Some of the supporting roles include Sean Astin, Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, and Jack Warren, with Platt as a standout, playing a campaign manager caught between the preservation of his career and “loyalty” to his candidate.

The things that irked me, and this plays into the whole gimmick, is the pounding rap soundtrack throughout the film.  Trust me, I love gangsta rap as much as the next hip-hop head, but it was unnecessary in some scenes.  The other problem I had was the use of a “chorus” by way of two black girls who essentially become Bulworth’s hype girls.  Personally, I found it a little obnoxious, annoying and didn’t really understand its place besides maybe comic relief, which falls flat.

Overall, “Bulworth” is a good political satire that tackles some of the hard issues, and to be honest, there hasn’t been another movie that was combined both tongue-in-cheek humor with something thought provoking in the political comedy genre .  Yes, we all know that special interest groups and lobbyists run Washington (as much as we want to tell ourselves that they don’t) and the middle class is disappearing while America becomes a two-class system.  The one thing that does hold “Bulworth” back from being a great movie is that hip-hop gimmick.  It works at times, but it becomes a joke in and of itself, and almost becomes cringe-inducing once you see Beatty in a skully and baggy pants.  

*Yes, the movie received plenty of recognition from the Awards circuit (Academy and Golden Globes) but it wasn’t widely distributed and was able to make it’s production costs back in it’s theatrical run.

Fun Fact:  There are 111 uses or derivatives of the word “fuck” used in the film.  Clocking in at 108 minutes, that is more than one “fuck” per minute.  1.027 to be exact.

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