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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis #1

by Steve Habrat

The last time audiences saw Joel and Ethan Coen, the directing duo was coming off a lengthy directing streak with 2010’s True Grit, a stunning remake of a John Wayne western that earned several Oscar nominations and almost universal acclaim from critics. After taking a small break and penning the screenplay for director Michael Hoffman’s 2012 film Gambit, the Coen’s return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which easily ranks as some of their best and moodiest work since No Country for Old Men. Comprised of washed-out cinematography, crackling dialogue, immaculate performances, and the Coen’s distinct brand of humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful period dramedy—one that explores the burning drive and stinging disappointment that many starving artists face on a daily basis. Though rich with eye-grabbing early 1960s set design and frigid atmospherics, Inside Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a complex character study. It allows us to voyeuristically glimpse inside the chilly world of a self-absorbed jerk as he sulks through New York City’s Greenwich Village in search of his big break and a couch to lay his weary head upon. The fact that we actually mildly root for Mr. Davis to make it as a folk singer is a testament to Oscar Isaac, who gives an extraordinary performance that is ripe with frustration, heartbreak, sarcasm, and exhaustion.

Inside Llewyn Davis picks up in 1961, with small-time Greenwich Village folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) homeless and broke. In between gigs at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn still nurses wounds from his break-up with his singing partner, Mike, who recently committed suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. Frustrated that his new solo album isn’t selling, Llewyn is forced to shack up on the couches of close friends, some of which have rocky relationships with the bitter musician. One of these close friends is Jean Berkey (played by Carey Mulligan), the wife of Llewyn’s friend and fellow-musician Jim (played by Justin Timberlake), who turns out to be pregnant after a one-night stand with Llewyn. In one final attempt to make it big, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago with rebel beat-poet Johnny Five (played by Garrett Hedlund) and cranky jazz musician Roland Turner (played by John Goodman) in the hopes of auditioning for famed producer Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham). Along the way, Llewyn is forced to take care of an orange tabby cat that managed to get loose from an apartment that Llewyn was staying at. To make things worse, Llewyn learns another devastating secret about a past lover who moved to Akron.

While the Coen’s lighten the mood with doses of their eccentric humor, Inside Llewyn Davis is a morose work of art that lingers on Llewyn’s testy attitude and self-inflicted turmoil. He scurries around New York City in the middle of winter, bundled up in a corduroy blazer and scarf, seeking out friends and family members in the hopes that they may lend him some money or give him shelter from the blustery cold. He is constantly taking verbal beatings from Jean, who absolutely detests him, but he does nothing to soften her blows. She calls him a loser and demands that he arranges for an abortion, and he retorts by calling her a conformist and rolling his eyes. When he isn’t busy pushing his friends away or refusing a winter coat from his manager, Llewyn is busy being combative with his sister and refusing to visit his sickly father. Despite the fact that he basically invites many of his problems, Isaac still manages to convey a deep-rooted pain that is visible in both Llewyn’s sleepy eyes and the aching folk songs that he cathartically belts out. You consistently get the impression that if Llewyn could just have one good thing happen, it might ease some of the tension that he carries with him. This is why you can overlook his long list of flaws and actually root for the guy.

Inside Llewyn Davis #2

Complimenting Isaac’s ornery and nomadic turn as Llewyn are equally complex performances from Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and even Garrett Hedlund. Mulligan is a snippy ball of fury as Jean, who never misses an opportunity to call Llewyn an “asshole” for getting her pregnant. Watching the two butt heads is hilarious and exasperating, especially since Llewyn keeps lighting her short fuse. Justin Timberlake gives another surprising turn as Jim, Jean’s eager-to-help husband who does everything he can for Llewyn. Timberlake’s shining moment comes when he sings a song with Isaac and co-star Adam Driver called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a cutesy novelty track that will be stuck in your head for days after seeing the movie. Coen regular John Goodman is a scene-stealer as the baritone jazz musician Roland Turner, who scoffs at the music Llewyn makes and the cat that he carries around with him. There is a particularly disturbing scene that reveals that the rotund Roland has some fierce demons of his own. Garrett Hedlund is a man of mystery as Johnny Five, a greaser-like beat-poet who answers in grunts, growls, and one-word responses. Watching Llewyn attempt to make small talk with him is spectacularly awkward, especially when he denies Llewyn a cigarette by claiming he is out, only to light one up in front of the broke folk singer just moments later.

In true Coen fashion, Inside Llewyn Davis comes equipped with a must-hear folk rock soundtrack that warms the film’s zero-degree chill considerably. Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and several other colorful characters lend their musical talents to the soundtrack; delivering heart-on-the-sleeve numbers that can really make a room hush up and take notice. The darling of the film is undoubtedly the charming novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an upbeat tune that will certainly be included in the Best Song category at the Oscar’s. Other standouts include Isaac’s rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” which he strums out for an unimpressed Bud Grossman, Isaac’s heart-and-soul final performance of “Fare Thee Well,” and a sweet little number by Stark Sands called “The Last Thing on My Mind.” In addition to the emotional folk soundtrack, the film is photographed in a dreamy, washed out manner that makes this week-in-the-life tale resemble a collection of forgotten polaroids that have been hiding in your attic since 1961. Overall, Inside Llewyn Davis is a soulful tune that won’t tickle everyone’s eardrums, but if you’re a fan of folk music or if you just can’t resist a morose Coen comedy, then you need to high tail it to the local theater and take a walk with this shaggy folk singer. It’s an American masterpiece that is downright impossible to forget.

Grade: A+   

The Hangover Part III (2013)

The Hangover Part 3

by Steve Habrat

After taking in the revolting antics of 2011s The Hangover Part II, the question of whether the world truly needed the second Hangover film hung thickly in the summer air. Was the follow-up to the inexplicable 2009 megahit really necessary? Apparently, Warner Bros. and director Todd Phillips thought the world needed a double dose of the Wolfpack. I don’t think there is any doubt that the world DEFINITELY didn’t need a third Hangover movie, but here we are with what is being called the final installment in the Hangover trilogy. Let’s hope so. Let me be clear when I say this—America, this is what you asked for. The Hangover Part III is about the laziest movie I’ve seen all year. It can be commended for breaking the formula of the first two movies and trying something new, but was everyone sleepwalking through the making of this thing? Devoid of any solid laughs and structured with a plot that seems like it was conceived by someone in a drunken stupor, The Hangover Part III is about as flat, arid, and jaded as cash grab sequels come. Even the target audience will have a hard time finding the humor in all of this, and more importantly, they’ll find it nearly impossible to root for the horribly detached heroes Phil, Stu, and Alan. You’ve been warned, folks.

The Hangover Part III focuses much of its attention on bearded oddball Alan Garner (played by Zach Galifianakis), whose bizarre behavior is slowly spiraling more and more out of control He has quit taking his medication and in a seriously foolish move, he purchases a giraffe that is killed while he tows it down the highway. Appalled by his son’s anti-social behavior, Alan’s father, Sid (played by Jeffrey Tambor), drops dead of a heart attack. It doesn’t take long for the grieving family to round up Alan’s best buddies and stage an intervention for the distraught man-child. Among the friends that step in are schoolteacher Phil Wenneck (played by Bradley Cooper), dentist Stu Price (played by Ed Helms), and Alan’s brother-in-law Doug (played by Justin Bartha). The group convinces Alan to go to rehab, but he is only willing to go if the Wolfpack will go with him. While on their way, the guys are rammed off the road and confronted by the pudgy gangster Marshall (played by John Goodman), who demands to know the whereabouts of flamboyant Chinese gangster Leslie Chow (played by Ken Jeong). It turns out that Chow, who has recently broken out of a Bangkok prison, has stolen $21 million dollars in gold bars and that Alan is the only one who has had communication with him since the escape. Marshall takes Doug as collateral and threatens that if the Wolfpack doesn’t track Chow down in three days, he will kill Doug.

The biggest crime of The Hangover Part II was that it recycled the plot of the first film, switched locations, and then padded it with a thick layer of lurid shocks. It was the ultimate endurance test and I’d say Phillips was the true victor. With The Hangover Part III, Phillips wisely moves away from the gross out approach that he used in Part II. You’d think that a toned down feel and a fresh plot that was minus a night of heavy drinking would refresh the franchise and energize the main players, but it’s actually the complete opposite. There is barely a laugh to be found throughout the hour and forty minute runtime, just ask the packed showing that I attended. There was an excited buzz in the air before the opening credits rolled and as the film drug on, you could feel that excitement slowly fading as joke after joke failed to get much of a reaction. To make things worse, Phillips then placed the two most popular characters, Alan and Chow, at the forefront of the entire project. You probably already know I’m not a big fan of either character and I think that a little bit of each one goes a very long way. You can just sense that the studio and the filmmakers are crossing their fingers that Galifianakis and Jeong will carry the film across the finish line. It should be said that they don’t. They stumble and fall the minute they get moving.

THE HANGOVER PART III

The sense of laziness carries over into the performances from Helms and Cooper, both who act like they’d like to just step away from the project altogether. Cooper, who is hot off an Oscar nomination for his surprising performance in Silver Linings Playbook, seems to be preoccupied with his new success and bored with the story. The script doesn’t even bother to elaborate or deepen his character in any way, shape, or form. He’s just going through the motions for a paycheck and its painfully obvious. As far as Helms goes, he was the one doing most of the work in the first two films, but here he seems edged out by Phillips and Galifinakis. He was usually the one who had the best one-liners but he’s nearly invisible this time around. Galifianakis is off his game (and his rocker) the second we catch up with him as he speeds down the freeway with a CGI giraffe being tugged behind him. Every single joke he cracked made me want to bury my face in my hands and shake my head (mind you, that is not a compliment). As far as Jeong’s Chow goes, there is just entirely too much of him. Even the die-hards will have a hard time defending his drastically increased screen time. Goodman puts forth quite a bit of effort as Marshal and he certainly owns the screen when he is squeezed into it, but there is little in the way of substance there. Fans of the first film will rejoice when they catch a glimpse of Mike Epps as “Black” Doug, Heather Graham as Jade, and, yes, even Baby Carlos, but the thrill will instantly fade when you realize they are given absolutely nothing to do besides reminding the audience that they still exist.

While I will agree that The Hangover Part III is a step up from the pitiful second installment, it is still the furthest thing from a great film. There are certainly a few cruel jokes (the worst being the decapitation of the giraffe) but most of them are unbelievably tame, limp, or simply non-existent. There are times when the film seems to be attempting to jump from the comedy mold entirely and into something resembling an action movie/crime caper, but it is far from smooth about this transition and it is just plain awkward. The project doesn’t even perk up when the Wolfpack finally arrives back in their Las Vegas, their blinking and flashing Hell on earth. By that point, it seems like cast and crew have upped and abandoned this turd altogether. Overall, the reshaped plot is a smart move, but the lack of even one memorable joke and the drastic shift in tone seem to have crushed the Wolfpack’s party spirit. They are ready to move on to bigger and better projects, ones that are more deserving of their comedic talents. And you, America, are ready to laugh at something far funnier than these obnoxious and poorly drawn characters. This is the worst film of 2013 so far.

Grade: F 

Flight (2012)

Flight (2012)

by Craig Thomas

In Flight, Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot with an alcohol addiction. At the start of the film we see him drink alcohol, take drugs and crash a plane into the ground. The rest of the film then follows Whip as he struggles to deal with his alcohol problem as well as the media and investigative frenzy surrounding the crash. During this time he befriends Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict, struggling to stay clean.

Calling the film Flight is somewhat misleading. After the impressive opening scenes to set the stage, there isn’t any actual flying. Instead, there is a character study of two people with substance abuse problems at different stages of using. But let’s start with the actual flight.

This is a very impressive scene and even though you can guess what is going to happen, the tension holds brilliantly. Each pull of the lever, each flip of numerous switches feel vital and precise. Whereas other plane crash movies might have the pilot flipping banks of switches, here each flip is specifically called for and built up to. Every time there is a sense of relief quickly followed by building tension once again.

For a big action sequence, it is very minimalistic. There are no drinks trolleys flying down the aisles, nor does every piece of luggage feel compelled to bound from its overhead compartment. There aren’t any shots of passengers wailing, or praying or any of that sort of thing. In fact, we don’t really get to see the passengers faces at all, with most scenes shot from the back of the plane. It wants you to be under no illusion, this is not a disaster movie.

Then the planes crashes.

This is when the movie really begins. We see Whip struggle with the situation he now finds himself in and the potential consequences of his lifestyle. We also see Nicole as she battles her own demons and tries to support Whip as he falls apart.

Things slow down here and though the script is solid, it is somewhat surprising to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Aside from a few lines which sound like classic Washington, there isn’t really much to get excited about. There is an interesting speech in a stairwell, but apart from that there isn’t much. At times it feels overwrought and heavy-handed, whilst some of the big scenes don’t manage to hit the right spot.

Flight (2012)

Yet the cast do their best with what they’ve got. Denzel puts in a very good performance as always, but the material isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, so there is only so much that can be done. One only wonders what this film would have been like were the lead role given to a lesser actor. Still, a Best Actor nomination seems overly generous if only due to the limitations of the script.

Kelly Reilly also gives a solid performance, but neither character feels particularly fleshed out, even though we know a lot about their (unfortunately predictable) backgrounds. Don Cheadle does well as the amoral lawyer (is there another kind?), Hugh Lang. There is also an enjoyable cameo from John Goodman playing Whip’s Rolling Stones soundtracked drug dealer.

Helmed by Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, Forest Gump, Cast Away) the film is very well put together. At times, his use of the camera really focuses on what is important, giving an insular feeling which reflects the character’s isolation. The only time he really slips up is during an inappropriate moment at a hospital where we are invited to laugh at some (again, two dimensional) people for their religious beliefs. It tries to lighten the mood, but ends up looking like something from an out-and-out comedy and doesn’t sit well with the frankly serious nature of the scene. It would be like placing a fart gag at the emotional climax of Schindler’s List.

This is a mediocre film pulled up by its bootstraps by some great performances and some inspired directing. It shouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is, but then that is true of a lot of Denzel Washington movies. The main problem is that it isn’t particularly deep which is usually death for a character study such as this. Still, everything just about comes together and there is enough good will in the first hour or so (which is regularly topped up) to carry you through to the end.

Grade: B

Argo (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.

Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.

While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.

Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.

Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.

Grade: A+

ParaNorman (2012)

by Steve Habrat

This fall sees the release of three ghostly children’s films and the first one rising out of the grave is ParaNorman, a gentle and amusing adventure about a lovable loner who can chat with the undead. From the makers of Coraline, ParaNorman is such a high-quality film, both in animation and story, that I firmly believe that the upcoming Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie won’t be able to live up to this virtually flawless work of art.  Despite the fact that ParaNorman is marketed as a morbid children’s film, ParaNorman definitely doesn’t skimp on the witty humor for adults and it even invites in some extremely efficient horror that would make most straightforward horror films blush. ParaNorman also scores big with the countless loving nods and tributes to B-movie and classic horror films (check out that opening), something for horror fans to go crazy over (I sure did!). Slightly more accessible than the surreal Coraline, ParaNorman is funnier, crazier, and a genuine crowd pleaser with imagination run amok, just like it should. And if all these touches aren’t enough to make you fall for ParaNorman, get a load of the hero himself, Norman, a shoe-gazing outcast who prefers to be alone with his ability. If you are even thinking about resisting against Norman, you can’t. You will fall for him the second you meet him.

Welcome to the small town of Blithe Hollow, New England, a place where it seems that every day is Halloween. It is here in Blithe Hollow that we meet Norman Babcock (Voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a skinny loner with a shock of brown hair who can speak to spirits. His parents, Perry (Voiced by Jeff Garlin) and Sandra (Voiced by Leslie Mann), don’t know how to relate to him while his sister, Courtney (Voiced by Anna Kendrick), thinks he is a freak. At school, things are no different for poor Norman. He is the target of relentless bullying from the big lug Alvin (Voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and finds his only friend in the overweight Neil (Voiced by Tucker Albrizzi). One day, Norman finds himself confronted by his estranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast (Voiced by John Goodman), a man that Norman’s father has strictly warned him to stay away from. Mr. Prenderghast tells Norman that he has the same ability as Norman and that he needs his help to stop a terrifying curse that will be unleashed upon the town. Norman refuses to take him seriously, but after he suffers from a horrifying vision, Norman decides to humor his uncle. Unfortunately, it is too late and a horde of zombies have risen from their graves and begun attacking the town.

The grounded opening half-hour of ParaNorman easily overshadows all the supernatural pandemonium of the second half but that is not to say that I didn’t like the second half of the movie. I got a huge kick out of seeing Norman’s day-to-day routine of mimicking a zombie in the mirror while he brushes his teeth, trying to comb down his fright wig hairdo, and sitting in front of the television watching shoddy old horror flicks while his grandmother’s ghost watches in revulsion. It was these moments where Norman really stole my heart and really got me to root for the little guy. The second half of the film is when the explosion of horror references takes over and sends the film into overdrive for chiller fans everywhere. Everything from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead all the way to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (!) are referenced while the soundtrack is a mix of pulsing synthesizers as colonial zombies lurch towards the trigger happy town. I must admit that I was a bit surprised to see all these horror references in a children’s film mostly due to the adult content of those films. I can imagine very few kids in the audience have actually seen those films and were actually picking up on these touches. For the adults who cherish these horror classics, directors Chris Butler and Adam Fell handle them with loving care and miraculously allow them to all flow together into an explosive witchy climax.

Then we have the vividly conceived characters that are all evenly developed, a rarity especially when there are this many at the heart of the film. Norman gets the most attention (obviously) but his best chum Neil is a hysterical little creation himself. Much like Norman, Neil is the target of bullies at school, teased for his weight, irritable bowel syndrome, and his choice of lunchbox (this only names a few reasons why he is an easy target). He enjoys passing time by messily munching on potato chips and freeze framing his mother’s aerobics video. Then we have Neil’s beefcake brother, Mitch (Voiced by Casey Affleck), who enjoys flexing his muscles more than his brain. Norman’s boy-obsessed sister Courtney is enamored with the muscular Mitch while reluctantly becoming Norman’s ally. Courtney bops around in a pink sweat suit while battling back gags over the things that come out of little Norman’s mouth. Rounding out the group of youngsters is Alvin, the flabby bully who tries to impress girls by break dancing to Dizzee Rascal (wait until you see the dance). Alvin tries to deface school property by writing his name in bathroom stalls yet can’t even spell his own name right. It is absolutely hilarious and touching to watch this group try to warm up to Norman even though he never once asks them to.

While it takes Norman some time to win over this rag-tag group of kiddies, the real obstacle is the adults, who are actually scarier than the zombies shuffling through town. Norman’s parents try desperately to level with Norman but all they end up doing is bickering back and forth over what to do with him. Norman’s father, Perry, tries to keep an open mind but he flies off the handle when Norman begins acting like Norman. Perry recoils at the very idea that people will talk about how odd Norman is while his mother, Sandra, takes a gentler approach to reaching Norman. Then there is Mr. Prenderghast, who overly levels with Norman to the point of freaking him out. The rest of the adults all quickly rally together to put down the zombies, who actually turn out to be just as misunderstood as Norman. There is a clever twist with them that I won’t reveal here but it definitely takes ParaNorman on an emotional detour. I will say that the adults end up being the real monsters because they absolutely refuse to listen to what Norman has to say.

I do have one minor complaint about ParaNorman and that is the hair-raising climax that seems to rapidly loose steam as it goes on. Things get a bit too far out in the end and I was left wishing that it would hurry up and end before it got too out of hand. Luckily it does and doesn’t do too much damage to the big picture. After the film ended, the buddy I attended this film with said that he found the film “refreshing” and I have to agree with him. ParaNorman dares to get a little weird and do it with such a wonderful sense of humor. I loved that the film was eager to act grown-up over just catering to the innocence of youngsters, which was the big problem with Pixar’s summer offering. This leads me to the PG rating slapped on the film. I’m still pretty astonished that this got away with a PG rating and didn’t get slapped with a big, bad PG-13. Things get freaky in ParaNorman and some of the jokes may make some adults bat an eye. Overall, ParaNorman kept me in stitches for its entire runtime while also consistently keeping me giddy over the raw inspiration that powers the film. Buggy conclusion aside, ParaNorman is a new classic that is just begging to be seen and revisited over and over. All that is required is that you bring an imagination, a sense of adventure, and a willingness to laugh. A new animated classic and easily one of the best films of 2012, so far.

Grade: A

The Artist (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After its sweep at the Golden Globes, the silent French film The Artist finally received a wide theatrical release. With all the hoopla and chatter about how wonderful this film is, I braved a snowstorm with two of my buddies who were intrigued by a silent film but were conflicted on the idea of seeing one. So is it worth the hype? Yes, The Artist is a testament to our imagination and is a vivacious spectacle without explosions. It’s comical, touching, smooth, and cute with two leads who have classic Hollywood movie star stamped all over them. To be fair, it is a intrepid move on the part of the filmmaker and the studio to take a risk on this film, mostly because American audiences wouldn’t give it the time of day. Yes, it is silent and yes, you have to pay attention to the screen or else you will get lost. That means you have to slide your phone back into your pocket, pause the Angry Birds, and ignore that text for an hour and forty minutes.

The Artist picks up in 1927 with amiable silent film star George Valentin (Played by Jean Dujardin), who proudly wears a pencil-thin mustache, greased back hair, and bops around with his dog costar, at the height of cinematic fame. As he departs the premier of his new film, A Russian Affair, photographers swarm Valentin and in the hysterics, he bumps into a strikingly beautiful woman named Peppy Miller (Played by Bérénice Bejo). She plants a big kiss on Valentin’s cheek, igniting a swarm of speculation in the papers: “Who’s That Girl?” Peppy uses her tabloid fame to get a job as a back-up dancer for a movie studio where she slowly climbs the ladder of celebrity. While in production on another film, studio boss Al Zimmer (Played by John Goodman) approaches Valentin and tells him he has something to show him. Zimmer introduces Valentin to a new kind of film—the talkie! Valentin waves the talkie off as just a fad that will never catch on, but as the years pass, Valentin watches as audiences embrace the new approach to this medium. As a result, Valentin’s fame and fortune slowly fades away, leaving him a broken man. Peppy, on the other hand, finds herself rapidly rising as the new “It” girl in Hollywood.

The film tells a timeless tale, one we are all accustomed with—a story of swallowing one’s pride, adjusting to the new times, and reluctance to accept change. Yet director Michel Hazanavicius tells it with a fresh visual approach, making us forget we have heard this story before. I would say that The Artist turns itself into an event film, yes, like Avatar or Grindhouse, because it dares to show us something we do not go to the movies and see every week. Sure, it doesn’t feature blue aliens or go-go dancers with machine guns for legs, but it does transport us to the early years of cinema, much like Grindhouse took us back to the rundown movie palaces of the 1970’s and Avatar felt ripped from the distant future. It is not satisfied with simply evoking, much like the other nostalgic films of 2011 were. It is a blockbuster of romanticized imagery. I found myself wishing that I would have worn a three piece suit and the theater would have been filled with cigarette smoke.

The Artist features some dazzling physical performances from both Dujardin and Bejo, both sweeping us up with the batting of an eyebrow and a smile. Dujardin is so damn magnetic that I can’t wait to see what he does after this film. While he flashes pearly smiles and looks cool strutting in a tux, he is capable of dramatic emotional lows. We feel for him as his marriage and career unravels even if we are saying, ‘Told ya so” in the back of our minds. Dujardin really sparkles when he breaks into a tap dance or performs slapstick with his four-legged companion. Bejo blazes up the screen with her bouncy sexuality and old Hollywood glamour. She is classy even when she is haughty, an imagine she embraces even if she is aware that it isn’t her true character. When the two share a scene, they have unlimited chemistry that Hazanavicius is fully aware of. A tap dance sequence at the end of the film left me wishing for a musical sequel that would feature George and Peppy together again. Goodman as the studio boss is right on the money. It was strange not hearing his gruff voice but even silent and chomping on a cigar, he is just as scene stealing.

Don’t worry if you feel like a fish out of water when The Artist first rolls onto the screen. It will take you a minute to adjust to it but when you do, you will forget that it is silent. Ludovic Bource’s old-fashioned score is a standout, as the music was the punctuation to the stories being told in silent films. The real beauty of The Artist comes from the message it sends to the audience. Film doesn’t need sound or flashy set pieces to send a profound statement and sometimes minimalism can stir up the strongest emotions in any given individual. The most important aspect of any work of art is the love, care, and attention the artist gives to their work and their willingness to stand by it. The Artist is bursting with Hazanavicius’ love, care, and attention in every single frame, which is why this film wins us over. It speaks a universal language without saying anything at all.

Grade: A

Red State (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.

Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.

Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.

Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.

Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.

The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!

Grade: A-

Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.

The Big Lebowski (1998)–Blu-ray Review/Reflection

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to discussing the Coen brother’s existential stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, I never admit that I did not find myself smitten by the film on my first viewing. Keep in mind that I was in the eighth grade when I first exposed myself to the wickedly fast dry humor that Joel and Ethan wove so slyly into the narrative. I was honestly bewildered by this oddity of a film. Sure, I knew it was supposed to be a comedy but I felt left out of the joke. Like the film knew something I did not. I would later come to realize that this is a feeling that you get while watching every Coen flick.

My cousin directed me towards the film, who vigorously quoted lines from the film like “Shut the fuck up, Donny!” and “I can get you a toe by three o’clock!” He vividly described scenes to me and had me doubled over in laughter just by his descriptions. While making a Best Buy run with my old man the next weekend, I happened upon the DVD and bolted to the register. When I got home, I tore the shrink wrap off the case, popped the disc into the player, and strapped myself in for what I anticipated to be one of the funniest movies I would ever lay eyes on. When the credits rolled, I stared blankly. I was unsure what to make of it. I chuckled a few times but I failed to see the gut busting hilarity of it all. I was disappointed. Furthermore, I had no clue what it was supposed to mean. For an eight grader, trying to decipher a film like this was quite a challenge. It all seemed to signify nothing. That we are just here living our lives and what happens around us is ultimately irrelevant. That’s the message I take away from the film now but back then, I simply had to watch it again. Yes, I groaned at the thought of enduring it a second time.

Upon my second viewing of the film, everything clicked. There is no plot to this movie! It’s just about a lazy stoner who enjoys bowling. He lives a simple life with zero complications. Everything is perfect in the Dude’s universe. Then, along comes two thugs who confuse Jefferey “The Dude’ Lebowski with a millionaire also named Lebowski. Turns out that millionaire Lewbowski’s wife owes some money and the thugs aim to make him pay. To con him into coughing up the dough, one urinates on his beloved rug. The Dude’s universe is shattered. After all, that rug really tied the room together. The Dude gathers his cronies, Walter, an obese Vietnam war veteran with anger issues and the scrawny pushover Donny, and they set out for compensation.

After knowing the background of the film, the rest is all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. The Dude finds himself caught up in one wacky encounter after another. All he wants is a new rug. What he gets is his perfect universe turned upside down. I will admit that after this revelation, the film was automatically hilarious. In fact, it was uproariously funny. There was no reason for any of this to be happening but it was. But hey, that’s life! There are events that take place around us that really have no meaning at all. We can try to understand them but we are just a small piece of the puzzle. Like the song through the opening credits suggests, we are just “tumbling tumbleweeds”.

What ultimately makes The Big Lebiowski a classic is the ensemble of characters that it packs. Everyone from Julianne Moore’s Maude to John Goodman’s Walter is so outrageous that they end up feeling real. No matter how outrageous things get, they seem to stay grounded. The true reason to see the film is Jeff Bridges’ dedicated performance as The Dude. He’s a character that is out of touch and in touch with reality all at the same time. His character is fully realized and never sees any growth but yet he polarizes us. We can’t stop watching him. To be honest, I think we are the ones that ultimately experience a change. Should we really worry about the little things that happen? Shouldn’t we just let it go? These characters exist just to act as our guides through our conversion.

We can debate the films other underlying meanings until we are blue in the face but the truly astonishing aspect of The Big Lebowski is the fact that the film gains more and more popularity as it ages! Its cult status is through the roof. The mere mention of the films title sparks a string of quotes and chuckles. I should note that these are for the people in the know. What further shocks me is the reach that the film has. Everyone from the stoner who lives next door to your doctor has seen it. The Big Lebowski has shot up the ranks and sits as one of my favorite films of all time. I quickly learned that the irrelevance of it all is the point. The film is now available on Blu-ray and I highly suggest that if you don’t own the film, go out and pick it up. It will really tie your film collection together. Grade: A+

The Big Lebowski is now avaliable on Blu-ray for the first time.