Sunday, September 25, 2011


Capote director Bennett Miller and West Wing/The Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin join forces for this true story about the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, played by Mr. Brad Pitt.  The movie begins and the A’s have just lost their biggest players, and it’s up to Beane to find solid replacements for the season.  Beane used a tight budget to his advantage and reinvented baseball by using a statistical approach, recruiting players that have been overlooked by the richer teams but have the skill to score runs.  With his younger partner Peter Brand, an Ivy League graduate played by Jonah Hill, the two challenged old-school conventions at the risk of losing their jobs and reputations.

Although I’m not a big baseball fan or a sports fan in general, I found Moneyball to be a captivating movie.  It was like The Social Network of baseball movies.  The film is not exactly the cheerful, win-the-game-at-the-last-second heartwarming sports flick filled with clichés that we expect from the genre; instead it’s a smart, adult look inside the world of baseball.  The script is what makes this movie work so well; Sorkin’s style of clinical, witty “adult talk” is as interesting as ever.  The strong cast also helps to beef up the film, with even small parts being memorable, such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the Athletic’s manager and a 12 year old Kerris Dorsey, playing Pitt’s daughter.  The great dialogue scenes between the characters are what drives the film, but the quiet moments were just as strong and poignant.  If I have any complaints it’s just that I would’ve liked some more scenes with the actual players.  There is a surprisingly subtle performance by Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt as the new first-baseman (very different from his role on Parks and Rec) – I just wish we had more scenes with him.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of baseball, I think Moneyball has something for everyone.  Pitt has a notable performance that’s quiet, maybe not something that will earn him an Oscar nom, but satisfying.  Jonah Hill is really stepping out of his usual comfort zone of comedy and pulls off a great dramatic performance as well. The story is great in general and made greater by the people behind the camera.  It’s not the groan-inducing underdog story we’ve seen over and over, but an interesting character piece and a comment on how conventional ways of thinking can be changed. 

Rating: A-

Saturday, September 17, 2011


*Note: I’m a supporter of spoiler-free reviews and the following contains as few spoilers as I can help putting in.

Drive is the latest critical hit from Cannes to hit our movie screens; originally supposed to be a vehicle for Hugh Jackman, the movie shifted towards a more artsy direction and Ryan Gosling was driven to top billing (I hope you like my car puns).  Gosling has really impressed me lately with his recent roles, the supporting cast is full of talented actors (Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Pearlman), and I love great car chase scenes, so I figured Drive would be right up my alley.  The movie is about a stunt-driver who works for the mob as a getaway car guy; while going back to his apartment he meets his neighbor (Mulligan) and instantly falls for her – the only problem is her husband is an ex-convict.  The movie basically has Gosling trying to pay off her husband’s debts by performing a heist so as to save her and her son from the criminals after them.

For those that have seen the trailer for Drive, it is very misleading (I’d advise you avoid it if possible).  It sounded to me like more of an action film; don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing bits of roaring cars and bloodshed, but it felt much more “low key” than I had assumed it would be.  There are a lot of scenes that drag on and on with no story progression.  Especially in the moments between Gosling and Mulligan, there are some extended parts with sparse dialog where they just stare at each other.  Moments like these might have worked if 30 seconds here and there were shaved off, but far too many times I was wondering when the next plot advancement would happen.

I did like a lot about the film despite its handful of dull stretches.  I enjoyed most of the actors, but Ryan Gosling was amazing and steals the show.  After watching this film, I couldn’t imagine that every guy walking out of the theater would not want to be him.  The way he carries himself, the way he chews on a toothpick, the way he remains really quiet, then a burst of violence sparks out – he’s completely captivating in this role.  Although I thought there were too few of them, the car scenes were also great.  Unlike recent action flicks where quick cut, MTV-style blurs are often the case, here the action was totally understandable and easy to follow.  I thought the violence in the film, although more graphic than general audiences may be used to, was “just right” and didn’t seem unnecessary (although one death – won’t say who – involving a shotgun to the head made me react with a Keanu Reeves “woah”). And the soundtrack was very different and ear-catching as well (is that a term, ear-catching?).  One thing is for sure – even if you hate the film, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, so it at least deserves some kudos for that.  I just wish it didn’t have those really long takes of staring and nothing happening (one guy in the back of my theater was actually snoring).  The movie is really hard to describe, and overall I really am all for this film even if it sounds the opposite - just go see it and judge for yourself!

Rating: B-

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Contagion is the latest movie brimming with A-list stars from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh and his writing partner on The Informant, Scott Z. Burns.  Simply put, the film is about how the world would react to a massive viral outbreak – from the “everyman” to the doctors to the press.  The huge cast includes Matt Damon as a now-widowed father after his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts the disease, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet as CDC doctors, Jude Law as a renegade blogger, and Marion Cotillard as a member of the World Health Organization (and that’s just to name a few; briefly seen side characters are always popping in and out, played by the likes of John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, Demetri Martin, and Elliot Gould).  The story is told with the typical “Soderbergh” flair, and is devoid of the crazy Roland Emmerich-style end-of-the-world type panic scenarios.  It’s a disaster movie without the screaming, if you will.

I loved the look and feel of this movie.  The film feels very clinical and realistic, as if we’re watching exactly what would happen if this situation occurred in real life.  Shot digitally, the movie feels very modern; the camera also nicely focuses on people touching things and one another – a clean and simple way to show that germs are passing (I would recommend germophobes and people with OCD do NOT see this film!).  The script is great as well, and even though the stakes are high, the film is mostly human, focusing on the individual characters and how they are trying to pull through this epidemic.  Although some characters get shortchanged (especially Marion Cotillard’s), all the actors are on the top of their game, often giving each situation a heavy emotional undercurrent.  I also thought the music of the film was an appropriately eerie electronic-sounding score (reminded me a lot of The Social Network).

Contagion isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a smart, adult take on what could have been a campy summer flick (a la I Am Legend).  Besides not all the characters getting equal amounts of importance or closure, I found myself enjoying (in a morbid sort of way) seeing how the world would [potentially] react to a worldwide contagion – hey, better for it to be in a movie than in real life.  While not being wholly original (this could have been the movie version of World War Z had it been a zombie virus), it’s still much better than most of the horror/thriller movies out there.  There’s social commentary, strong performances, a chilling soundtrack, and a dead Gwyneth Paltrow – what else could you want?

Rating: B+

Monday, September 5, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark MOVIE REVIEW

First off let me tell you about my theater experience.  During the beginning ads I knew there would be trouble; to the left side we could hear the shouting and explosions from some other movie.  There was no open door or anything, yet we could hear it perfectly.  So I went down to the concessions, saw a manager, and told him my dilemma.  He said he would turn the other one down and turn ours up, but still, especially during the quiet scenes, we could hear booming explosions from the other side of the wall.  I don’t know if this could have altered my opinion of the movie – I doubt it, but thought I’d mention it anyway.

As nearly every trailer and TV spot will tell you, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is produced and written by Guillermo del Toro, who in my opinion is one of the coolest people currently working in the sci-fi/horror genre right now.  This movie is based off of a 1973 made-for-TV feature; I have yet to see the original so I won’t be able to compare the two films.  In this version, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce are a couple moving into a rickety old fixer-upper mansion; Pearce’s ~5 year old daughter comes to live with him after her mother “gives” her to him.  Unfortunately for her, there are creatures living in the basement of this mansion that want to eat children, and what follows is nothing new, pretty standard atmospheric horror.

The beginning of the movie starts off really well.  The opening scene that sets up what the creatures are is very spooky and quickly lets us know exactly what the creatures are after while also being entertaining.  But following the set-up and an eye-catching opening credits sequence, the movie trips over cliché after cliché, many of which audiences have outgrown since the 80’s and 90’s. The girl is the first to discover the monsters (as it often goes in these movies), and the lengths to which the adults don’t believe her are ludicrous.  In certain scenes, there is crystal clear evidence that the creatures exist right on the floor near them, but they continually dismiss that any of the fantasy elements could be real.  Also, things that we already know are explained to us in full only to drag the pace down.  In one scene, the Katie Holmes’ character goes to some library type place to “investigate” what the creatures are; there just happens to be a guy there that not only knows where everything about the creatures are located, but he seems to be an expert himself.  He appears for this scene only and to me represents poor writing/lack of imagination.

Besides the script though, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has a lot of things going for it.  As I said, the atmosphere is pretty good, and the cinematography is great, with a lot of movement through the house and the outside gardens with few edits (at least fewer than most recent films of this type).  The creatures themselves are kind of cool also.  While they may not have been as threatening as they could have (they’re about the same level of danger as the critters in Gremlins), I thought they were at least unique.  I don’t want to ruin anything, but what the creatures are is a sort of alternate take on a popular myth, and I thought the way they handled that was interesting.  I do wish the idea of darkness was exploited a little better though; the idea with these creatures is that they don’t like the light – but at the same time we have to see the movie so it’s that kind of fake “movie darkness” that isn’t suspenseful (the little girl is walking around as if it’s really hard to see but everything is crystal clear on the screen).  If the movie used the darkness to shroud the creatures more, it would have been a lot scarier (that’s the golden rule in horror, just look at Jaws) and more believable.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is your standard horror movie.  Even though it has a lot of pitfalls and clichés, it’s still scary and entertaining: what else could you want from a movie like this?  With decent acting, a creepy mansion with amazing set design, a unique monster, and a few jump scares thrown in, it’s a legitimate time at the movies.  Just hope that if you’re in a crappy theater it’s not playing next to a Michael Bay film.

Rating: B-
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