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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Unstoppable Denzel Washington Movie Review

If you like trains, you'll probably enjoy the movie Unstoppable.  I have never worked for the railroad but I have always had a secret affinity for trains and find Hollywood woefully lacking in train films that actually look at the day to day functions of a modern day railroader.

Not that Unstoppable is an ode to railroading but it does at least talk about the workings of a train and what the responsibilities of a locomotive engineer and a freight train conductor are. Things that other train films merely glaze over.

Unstoppable features gritty Pittsburgh rail yards and working class towns amid beautiful scenery threatened by a lethal runaway train

Denzel Washington was excellent as the jaded, veteran railroad working alongside a rookie freight conductor played by Chris Pine.

As with most action stories based on "true events", this story is a gross exaggeration of the real life events.  It also has all of the usual formulas with evil business executives, reluctant regular guy heroes, and estranged families brought together by tragedy and mended by heroics of the characters.

I could complain more but honestly, it all works.  The Denzel Washington and Chris Pine make do a nice job of acting in a genre that often obliterates the efforts of the actors with overwhelming special effects.

All of the stunts in the film were very believable. There is no Rambo jumping off a cliff and surviving. The impossible scenes result in tragedy and the 'merely' difficult ones are thought out rationally and completed convincingly much as I would expect from the real-world.

This is a film that follows much of the same formula but it never feels contrived or forced.  There is no melodrama, excessive violence and everyone keeps their shirts on.

If you are looking for something just a notch or two above the usual action film check it out.

Rated PG-13

1hr and 38 minutes


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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Howl - Movie About Allen Ginsberg Poem Obscenity Trial - Review

The beat generation poem "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg is a revolutionary and controversial poem not only for its time but perhaps for the ages.  

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman directed the movie "Howl", which I had the pleasure of watching recently on NetFlix. The movie "Howl" is the story of two events happening at the same time. One story Allen Ginsberg's first 1955 reading of the epic poem, "Howl."  A full length reading of the poem in a bookstore with frequent animation injected into the film. The animation by Epstein and Friedman is intended to help the movie audience better understand the poem.

 Other story in Howl is the 1957 obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Fransisco,  who was arrested for publishing the book.  This part of the film is staged entirely in a very small, simple courtroom setting.

The movie flashes back and forth between both stories.  It is a wonderful juxtaposition. The artsy, moody, frequently animated, poetry driven reading of Howl is  interspaced with the austere courtroom environment scenes.  This combination of the more traditional, but entertaining, courtroom scenes and the extreme creative license taken during the reading of "Howl" really makes "Howl" a fresh movie.

The film is largely dominated by James Franco, who plays Allen Ginsberg.  While Franco does not appear in the courtroom scenes, as Ginsberg did not attend the trial, he easily has the most camera time and dialog in the film.   Franco, as always, is just terrific.  He is believable as a young Allen Ginsberg wearing thick black glasses, pounding away on his typewriter, through self journey, confusion and self reflection.

The film has a lot of supporting cast with relatively small parts.  The supporting cast is made of some notable surprises.  Watch it and you'll find yourself saying, "I didn't know he was in this!"  I'll give some away. Treat Williams (who also starred with Franco in 127 Hours) and Jeff Bridges both play ascholarly, expert witnesses during the Howl obscenity trial.

The bottom line is I really enjoyed the film.  If you like modern, beat poetry you'll love the film. I have not read "Howl" but it felt as though the entire poem was read in this movie (in a good way).

If you like independent, art house films, this film is for you.  Lots  of creative license.

While the film is not overly offensive contrived, in your face kind of  way, it can be at times. There are a number of adult themes for sure that would certainly offend those looking for a more family oriented or scholarly based movie.

I say check it out.   See what you think

Rated R
84 Minutes

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Touching The Void - Climbing Mockumentary Documentary Survival Film Review

Touching the Void is a 2003 film that focuses on mountain climber Joe Simpon's seemingly impossible survival. Simpson is left for dead on the side of a mountain. In order to escape the mountain he must decend, badly injured, with no food, no water, and completely exposed to the harsh elements of the Sivla Grande in Peru.  It is a true story based on a book written by Joe Simpson about his experience.

I very much enjoy mountaineering documentary films and outdoor documentary films in general.  Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and 127 hours in spite of their tragic stories,inspire a sort of rugged individualism in me that I, of course, never act upon but relish vicariously anyway.  Touching the Void is one of  those beautiful films and one of the best I have ever seen.

Touching the Void is part documentary, part mockumentary. The mockumentary is, of course, the actual reenactment of the difficult climb and brutal accent of Silva Grande.    The beauty of the film is that I sometimes forgot that the mockumentary portion is actually a reenactment. It feels that real.  The film really taps into every horror imaginable about dying alone, including overcoming the will to just simply die rather than suffer for survival any longer.

The accounts by Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates are very raw, honest and in some ways, without sympathy for their decisions or each other.  They are true mountaineering professionals who understand the risks and realize there are acceptable loses in a sport with no room for error.

I have watched the movie a couple of times and really enjoy it.  Touching the Void takes it's time but it doesn't not drag.  Good pace and very, very believably acted by the actors during the mockumentary portion.

If you remotely enjoy climbing or this type of film, watch it.  Touching the Void is bound to be a classic survivor film to be watched for years to come.

Rated R
94 Minutes

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127 Hours - Hiker Who Cut His Arm Off - James Franco - Movie Review

Who was the hiker that cut his arm off and they made a movie about it? The hiker who chopped his own limb off is Aron Ralston and he is played by James Franco in the film 127 Hours. This is my review of this film.

Picture yourself in the desperate situation where you either remove an appendage or you die. It is that simple.  For Aron Ralston, there was no choice at all but to survive by amputating his own arm.

That is not meant to be a spoiler.  His fate is well known.  This picture is really about the journey of desperation and torment getting to that dreaded moment.

James Franco plays the very likeable, live in the moment Aron Raltson.  Franco's sinewy build, outdoor attire and smiling, somewhat gaunt face, makes for a very believable and resourceful outdoor enthusiast.

There is not much of a supporting cast, though I very much liked Kate Mara in her brief role as one of a pair of lost hikers that Franco helps guide.  Mara really reminded me way back in my college days of a young, energetic full of life student.  According to Wikipedia, her scene is mostly fictitious but it does make for good cinema and really helps set up Franco's character as the happy go lucky, enigmatic and likable person.

I really enjoyed 127 Hours in the beginning of the film.  The scenery in the Utah desert is simply beautiful.  It truly made me want to explore that area, though I don't consider myself the die hard outdoorsy type.  You could feel the excitement as Franco's character, Aron Ralston, sets out on his own for what you presume is one of hundreds of solo adventures he's had.

The middle of the film, during which he was trapped, felt agonizing long. The 94 minute film seemed to slow down to 127 hours.  Maybe not a bad thing. Out of respect for Ralston, maybe the film is meant to drag on the audience so you too feel his loneliness and frustration.
 Perhaps the most artistic parts of the film, some surreal moments happen on camera. Songs that Ralston can't get out of his head, dreamy reflections on life, hallucinations and moments of sheer mental torment often shown through the view lens of a video camera (Ralston filmed himself during parts of the ordeal).  Much of this part is shot like a documentary (mockumentary) and the whole film has a sort of documentary feel to it.

For the esoteric outdoor film lovers out there, 127 Hours reminded me a great deal of the wonderful documentary / mockumentary "Touching The Void"  

"Touching the Void" also featured a desperate outdoorsman, alone in his struggle for survival.  There are many parallels that I won't bore you with but if you see both films you'll know what I mean.

 Once he severs his arm free from the rock, the film moves along very quickly. Maybe it moves a little too fast but after enduring what seemed like hours on my couch while his arm is stuck, I was glad the pace picked up.

All in all, I think it is a terrific film.  Very well acted and beautifully shot.  Danny Boyle really directs a fine, real life piece of drama that feels much like a well shot documentary.
 I would recommend it even if it is a little slow in the middle.
Rated R.  Some profanity and bloody, gruesome removal of forearm

94 Minutes

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Black Swan Movie Review - Hate Ballet Still Love the Film

Even if you hate the ballet, you'll like Black Swan. Black Swan is a cinematic beauty. Every scene utterly drips personality, emotion, expression, anxiety and subtle, prolonged torment. It is vivid and emotionally dark.  The film is so intense that, in a very, very good way, it felt much longer than the 108 minutes on the DVD cover.  I was drained after watching this film.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina that lives a secluded almost monk like existence with her mother.  Nina dedicates every ounce of her soul to the ballet and in preparation for her chance at a  breakthrough lead role in the ballet, Swan Lake.

Black Swan depicts the world of ballet as an envious, competitive, emotionally draining, physically damaging profession filled with characters with virtually no exit plan.  No plans for old age, no plans for love, no plans for anything except the next moment in a physically degenerative career (think The Wrestler or North Dallas Forty). The Ballet is an art that consumes its dancers with moments. One moment the dancer is with the therapist (literally putting joints back together), then off to work on choreograph, then off to pine over proper form and technique, then grooming, fixing make up, a moment to eat very little, then finally a moment to throw up from frayed nerves.

Swan Lake is a fictional, whimsical struggle between two forces in one character.  Two personalities trying to tear each other apart.  Black Swan's dystopian world of ballet  demonstrates that this can happen to the ballerinas as well.

Portman plays the greatest and most tormented character of her career.  This is not some stiff, one dimensional character from a lame Star Wars sequel. This is a true study in acting. You feel the pain and determination  without Portman ever having to say it.  

The supporting cast is excellent.  Barbara Hershey, who plays Nina's mother, is great as the Ballerina that almost-once-was.  Hershey plays a complicated part to the tee.  Is she a horrible, dominating mother or loving and supporting.  Those lines are blurred. You can't tell.  During both loving and trouble moments in their relationship is Nina seeing her mom through her own kaleidoscope torment or is she seeing her as her mother really is.

The film is filled with these brilliant ambiguous moments that give it a very surreal feeling, though in the end you realize even the most supernatural events in the film are quite plausible.

Check out Black Swan.  You'll love it even if you don't like the ballet.

Rated R

108 Minutes

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ever Since The World Ended Movie Review - End Of Human Race ?

"Ever Since the World Ended "  is set in San Francisco, California about 10 years after pandemic nearly extinguishes the entire human race.  One of the survivors decides to make a film where he interviews various citizens who remain in the Bay area. His film focuses on their feeling about the mass extinction and how they have coped ever since.

"Ever Since the World Ended "  was brilliant.  I haven't stopped thinking this thought provoking movie.  To watch this film with a group of friends and not engage in a conversation about how things would be after a pandemic would be impossible.   "Ever Since the World Ended" is completely plausible and any one of the characters in the film could easily be you. Watch the movie and you'll see what I mean. It is completely devoid of the Zombies and other sci-fi horrors found in other end of the world movies that make them so intangible.

If I had to make a negative comment, I probably would have liked to see some  street shots of San Francisco. It would have helped emphasize the loss of life with the eerily empty streets. I do understand however, that this is a low budget film (though it doesn't feel like one) and clearing the "real world" city streets of life just to shoot a film is expensive.  If anything, that fact that the film is largely shot it closed spaces really helps you focus on the story of the survivors and what it all means, which is what the film is about anyway.

Be sure to pay attention to the wonderful juxtaposition of attitudes between the adult and adolescent population. I found that part most intriguing.

 Excellent film.


1 hr 18 minute 

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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Wildest Dream - A Climbing Film To Find Mallory Movie Review

 The Wildest dream is a 2010 climbing documentary movie that centers around one climber's obsession with determining if George Mallory actually reached the summit of Mount Everest

The movie begins with Conrad Anker discovering George Mallory's body on Mount Everest.  Mallory's body is found in an area that suggests he may have reached the summit and died descending the mountain.

Anker decides to investigate if Mallory could have possibly reached the summit but attempting a summit of his own.

The movie is wonderfully shot.  The scenery is gorgeous and it is hard to believe that he and his partner had a camera crew with them throughout the experience.

The film is a wonderful telling of George Mallory's story.  The footage and photographs of his life are wonderfully preserved and displayed well in this film.  Childhood to World War One to life of a climber, his story is fascinating.

The telling of Mallory's romantic personal life as father as husband was beautiful as well.  Mallory's love for his children and intense romance with his wife will make even the happiest family man envy Mallory's life inspite if it being cut so short by tragedy.

As with most great climbing films, the film emphasizes the mental and physical challenges climbers must face (brain swelling, sickness, lack of oxygen, injury, cold, just to name a few) while climbing such high altitudes.  You are left with a true appreciation of the sport and the extreme hardships faced by Mallory's expedition as well as Anker's.

To prove if Mallory made it to Everest's summit or failed, Conrad Anker said he would climb the mountain using the same clothing and gear that Mallory used. He has these garments specially made to match the exact original 1924 clothing and shoes.  He also refuses to use a ladder that is permanently bolted to a very small but difficult section of Mt Everest. Instead he has it unbolted and attempts that section without it.

I did feel that the movie missed it's point on proving whether or not Mallory could have made the summit.  I won't give away the answer.  My biggest problem with the experiment is that Ankur only wears the same type of clothing Malloy wore for a small portion of the climb before switching to modern gear.  I can't blame Anker for removing Mallory's clothes. Wearing Mallory's clothing for just one day resulted in Anker and  his climbing partner having numb feet and much discomfort thawing them out. Had they worn Mallory's clothes for days at a time,  I think things would have been too treacherous for Anker.

I could say more, but I don't want to give things away, plus I'd still like you to see the movie. If you like mountaineering films, you'll enjoy this one,not just for the history and scenery but for the true test of will and adventure of it. all.  

The movie was fun to watch and the only time I looked at the clock was when I hoped the movie would end later rather than sooner.  

94 Minutes
Rated PG

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Return To Paradise - A Prisoner's Dilemna Movie Review

Return to Paradise is a 1988 film Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche and Joaquin Phoenix.   Three American men vacation in Malaysia. Malaysia apparently is an exotic vacation spot filled with easy sex and cheap hash, which they indulge.  The men have just met for the first time but bond closely.  Two of the men return to the United States but one stays behind only to get caught with the load of hashish that he and the other two were smoking. The caught man is sentenced to death by the Malaysian authorities.

The movie conjures up reminders of the brilliant prison classic Midnight Express, except, unlike Midnight express the condemmed man has no hope of escaping on his own. He must rely on the other two men to return to Malaysia and take responsibility for the crime. If the two men surrender to Malaysian authorities, both get three years in prison, and the condemmed man is freed. If only one returns, the man returning gets six years in prison, and the condemned man is freed.

If neither return, the condemned man dies. 

If you are game theory enthusiast, you will already recognize that this film is based on a game called prisoner's dilemma. If you aren't sure what prisoner's dilemma is, I created a bookmark here. Just go to it and find the link (then come back here :-)

The overall acting of the film was very believable and the juxtaposition between the condemned prisoner's life and the comfortable New York City life lead by the other two men really made me agonize over what I would do. Would I return to Malaysia and rot in jail for years and save a life, or stay home and build my own life?

The question is even more intriguing since these men only knew each other for a few weeks, though they very much were kindred spirits.

I thought the movie was well done and unique in its own ways.  I was impressed by the film. The only problem I had with Return to Paradise was, as a viewer, I couldn't admire the condemned man as much as the other two characters. Phoenix plays the man to die and he is young and likable but I didn't feel the glow about him that the other characters pined over.

That said, it was still a good flick with decent performances. Check it out sometime.


1 hr 49 Minutes

Rated R.  Profanity, mildly disturbing scenes

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Beyond The Mat - Interesting Pro Wrestling Documentary Movie Review

Mickey Rourke played an aging, broken down, professional wrestler in the film, "The Wrestler"  He  abused drugs and drove his body to the brink in the demanding world of pro wrestling.

I wondered how  "The Wrestler" compared to the real world of professional wrestling. 

Then along came "Beyond The Mat." "Beyond The Mat" is a documentary film about lives of Pro Wrestlers. Filmmaker Barry Blaustein interviews both young and old professional wrestlers performing on a variety of levels ranging from the all powerful WWF to lowly back country warehouses.

The most recognizable wrestlers that Barry Blaustein spends time with is 'The Snake' Roberts, Terry Funk and Mick Foley (aka Mankind) 

I'm not sure that this is the best filmed documentary.  There are no creative camera angles, the scenes are not spliced together in any creative fashion and the film is devoid of virtually any aesthetic efforts.  The production, while very professional, does have more of a do it yourself feel to it.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that it feels like a home video but I do get the impression that Blaustein hasn't shot a documentary before.

With that in mind, I could not stop watching this film.  Blaustein's movie shows pure wrestling reality. The action is fake but the beatings and pain are very real.  The wrestlers, for the most part, are loving fathers but their careers test the strength of family. Wrestlers can experience glory but there is also drug addiction and permanent injury.

Most impressive was this film's ability to show wrestling without taking sides, making judgements or drawing any profound conclusions.  The film really lets the subjects reveal their lives naturally.  He asks no questions with the intent of making the subjects emotional or more 'interesting.'  The wrestlers do this on their own through Blaustein's lens and the result is very satisfying.

This is one of those films that, at 108 minutes long, I could have kept watching.

"Beyond The Mat" is 108 minutes long, rated R. Definitely has some very real, violent scenes and profanity.

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