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|Movie Review - In The Valley Of Elah
|At the 2006 Academy Awards, “Crash” pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Oscar history, slipping past heavyweight “Brokeback Mountain” to seize Best Picture. Now nearly two years later, writer/director Paul Haggis returns with his directorial follow-up. Instead of tackling the ugly realities of racism again, he turns his attention to a different but equally sensitive topic — the war in Iraq.|
During his first weekend back from serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) mysteriously disappears. When his parents (Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon) are alerted of this disquieting news, his father, Hank, a former military man, travels to the base to help track him down. Once he arrives, things begin to look increasingly discouraging, and the evidence piles up suggesting his son was murdered. With the help of a local police detective (Charlize Theron), Hank attempts to uncover the truth behind the shocking act, no matter how dark it might be.
The driving force behind the film is Tommy Lee Jones, who turns in one of the best-rounded performances of his storied career. While his character never strays too far from those he is well known for (“The Fugitive,” “Men In Black”), there is an element of brokenness to his demeanor which makes this one different. His grave facial expressions insinuate a sorrowful past, stemming from the loss of his elder son to overseas combat. This adds an additional dimension to his rough and tough persona, as well as casting his forthcoming violent outbursts in a new light.
Theron, while not given as much to work with as Jones, delivers as both a haggard cop and a single mother. She is limited to working almost solely on the investigation yet infuses a likeable personality into the part, keeping us involved.
The rest of the ensemble provides good performances, although some are never developed. James Franco as an army officer and Sarandon as Jones’ wife serve as little more than footnotes in Jones’ journey. The movie squanders a great opportunity to contrast the crisis from Sarandon’s viewpoint, a valued component that the similar-minded film “In The Bedroom” skillfully demonstrated.
With strong acting on display, the film’s main downfall lies in the writing department. Much of the run time follows the slow-trodden investigation, and the meticulous pacing is sure to garner complaints. When the big mystery is finally resolved at the end, it also lacks the level of fulfillment that “Crash” excelled at.
Haggis takes a subtler approach to develop his themes this time around, focusing on the characters and choosing to let things unfold in front of their eyes. He shows a growing maturity in that regard, and this more organic storytelling is certainly a step in the right direction. The message responds by being less heavy-handed than “Crash,” save for the last scene, but no one will leave the theater without knowing where Haggis stands on the issue.
On the other hand, the emotional response and insight which made “Crash” so powerful are largely absent here. While we feel for Jones’ character, we never get a chance to connect with any of the soldiers, failing to understand them below a surface level. This is ultimately were the movie fails.
Its arguments against war and the personal damage it causes centers on these soldiers’ responses. When this aspect fall shorts, the whole story crumbles as a result. It doesn’t help that similar themes have been explored in countless war stories — the superb “All Quiet On The Western Front” immediately springs to mind — making it all the more apparent when Haggis stumbles.
Coming off the major success of “Crash,” “In The Valley Of Elah” can only be considered a disappointment. First off, it never reaches the heights of the former or resonates as profound an emotional chord. It is also plagued by many of the same problems as the Haggis-penned “Flags Of Our Fathers,” stalling in its quest to portray war in a rarely-seen setting. Despite a brilliant effort on behalf of Jones and an ambitious attempt from Haggis, these missteps are difficult to ignore.
The Verdict: B- (82%)
|Tags: In The Valley Of Elah, Movie, Review
|Concert Review - Cornerstone: Day Two (9.29.07)
|Cornerstone Festival started in Illinois in 1984 and has since become one of the largest and most acclaimed festivals in the country. In June, thousands of fans flocked to the annual five-day event, featuring performances by bands such as Anberlin, Copeland, Flyleaf, Pillar, Skillet, Switchfoot and Underoath. Borrowing a page from last year’s Bamboozle Left, Cornerstone decided it was finally time to make their hard-hitting presence felt in Orange County last weekend, Sept. 28-29.|
Night one’s schedule included Emery, Thousand Foot Krutch and Demon Hunter, but the second night was the main attraction. The first highlight belonged to Orange County’s own Project 86, who turned in a vigorous set consisting of eleven songs. Led by the active charisma of singer Andrew Schwab, the veteran rock outfit skewed towards material off of this summer’s Rival Factions.
While they pulled it off handedly most of the time, as evidenced by scorching opener “The Forces Of Radio Have Dropped A Viper Into The Rhythm Section” and “Evil (A Chorus Of Resistance),” during others it was a more mixed affair (“Illuminate,” “Pull Me Closer, Violent Dancer”). The band should have chosen to stick closer to their guns and pull more from their strong discography, as they did on “The Spy Hunter” and “My Will Be A Dead Man.” Closing with the only song of the night off of Drawing Black Lines – arguably their best album – “Stein’s Theme” proved they were merely saving the best for last. It all amounted to another solid outing from one of OC’s finest.
Anberlin was up next, putting on nothing short of a terrific performance. Kicking things off with “A Whisper & A Clamor” and “Never Take Friendship Personal,” the band’s set was equally full of both old and new material. Although “Readyfuels” was the only song from their debut record, the big surprise was that they played six off of their second. The noticeable standouts were the rocking “Paperthin Hymn” and “The Feel Good Drag,” but it was especially satisfying to see “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen” live.
The band spent the rest of the time highlighting one of this year’s best releases, Cities. This included tracks “Hello Alone” and “Adelaide,” both of which were precisely executed, while the powerful duo of “Dismantle. Repair.” and “Godspeed” ended things in an emphatic manner.
Lead singer Stephen Christian did a pretty good job with the vocals, not quite up to his best but far from his worse, and impressed on a couple of high notes. He displayed a charming command of the stage as well, helping to compensate for the times when his frail voice was overshadowed by the guitars.
The Florida five-piece also maintained a high level of energy, led by rhythm guitarist Christian McAlhaney and bassist Deon Rexroat, with Nathan Young pounding away behind the drum kit. When all was said and done, Anberlin confirmed why they have become one of today’s brightest up-and-coming bands.
Metalcore act Underoath was given the task of closing out the festival, and the organizers couldn’t have selected anyone more fitting. The six-piece band, taking time out from their first headlining tour in over a year, brought their “A” game with a dominating 12-song set. They came onto the stage to the instrumental murmurs of “Salmarnir,” offering little more than a tease of what lay ahead, before exploding into the brutal one-two punch of “Returning Empty Handed” and “In Regards To Myself.”
Quick to follow were “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door” and “You’re Ever So Inviting,” showcasing the dual vocals between screaming frontman Spencer Chamberlain and singer/drummer Aaron Gillespie. A portion of their quieter, more experimental nature was next demonstrated on the epic “To Whom It May Concern,” the closer off of last year’s phenomenal Define The Great Line.
“A Moment Suspended In Time” and “Young And Aspiring” kept things progressing at a high pace but were soon eclipsed by “Writing On The Walls” and “Everyone Looks So Good From Here,” which cranked the dial all the way up to eleven. Chamberlain then unexpectedly joined in on guitar for a stirring performance of “Casting Such A Thin Shadow” before the band closed with an oldie, “A Boy Brushed Red…Living In Black And White.”
Despite the festival’s constraints of production aspects and a limited set time, Underoath held nothing back and delivered an excellent show. Their seemingly limitless stamina, from the headbanging madness of keyboardist Chris Dudley to the controlled frenzy of guitarist Tim McTague to the vicious beatings generated by Gillespie, was living proof why they rank among the top live acts in today’s music scene.
In the end, Cornerstone California’s inaugural year turned out to be a fair success. While the lineup could have been stronger – it still has quite a ways to go to match its Illinois sibling – the headlining bands, especially the electrifying Underoath, proved they were up to the challenge. With some additional improvements and slight tinkering here and there, Cornerstone’s newest addition could be a force to reckon with for years to come.
|Tags: Cornerstone, Underoath, Anberlin, Project 86, Concert, Review
|Movie Review - The Kingdom
|The conflicts in the Middle East and the threat of Islamic extremists are two of the most pressing issues facing our country today. This fall, Hollywood responded by rolling out one of its most politically minded lineups in recent years, with several films tackling these issues with stories uncomfortably close to today’s headlines. “The Kingdom” is one of the first of these to be released and, though it might not be as politically motivated as some of the others, it still manages to make an important statement about the times in which we live in.|
The story begins in Saudi Arabia, where a terrorist attack inside an American housing complex leaves more than 100 people dead. Back in the states, Washington officials determine it is best to let the local government handle the case. Angered by this decision, FBI Special Agent Robert Fleury (Jamie Foxx) arranges an unauthorized covert operation, giving him and three other agents (Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) five days in Saudi Arabia to investigate further. Upon arrival, they have a hard time accomplishing anything constructive, restricted by the local authorities who don’t want their assistance. Finally, with the help of a sympathetic colonel (Ashraf Barhoum), they slowly start to unravel the identities of those responsible.
Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (“The Rundown,” “Friday Night Lights,” Will Smith’s upcoming “Hancock”) has turned in another terrific effort at the helm. While more of a military thriller than a political piece, it is an involved look at a group of soldiers well out of their comfort zone, offering a glimpse into a part of the world many of us are unfamiliar with. Expanding further on the handheld tactics he employed in “Friday Night Lights,” while also trying to one-up the likes of Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) and Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Collateral”), Berg is able to ground the film in a stark sense of reality. While the style can be a bit exhausting at times, it suits the tone of the picture capably.
The cast, while all turning in solid performances, never capitalizes on the potential their talents suggest. Foxx plays a resolute and serious leading man, yet despite his efforts, he never generates a strong sense of emotion necessary to carry a story of this magnitude. The dependable Cooper is a joy to watch, playing the group’s explosives expert, but the part easily could (and should) have been expanded. As a result, he never is allowed to sink his teeth into the character, as he did earlier this year to great effect with “Breach.”
Garner, in a tough girl mode reminiscent of her “Alias” days, doesn’t distinguish herself except during the action scenes, highlighted by an impressive fight with one of the terrorists. On the other hand, fellow TV alumnus Bateman (“Arrested Development”) proves he can do more than just comedy, showing off a surprising dramatic range, and Jeremy Piven (“Entourage”) is effective as a U.S. diplomat in his limited screen time. However, the most surprising performance belongs to Barhoum (“Paradise Now”), who is more than able to hold his own against his more famous colleagues.
The script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also penned the forthcoming politically-charged “Lions For Lambs”), proves to be both a blessing and a hindrance. For the most part it is intelligently written and successful at creating an atmosphere of believability but at other times, it hinges on being too dense for its own good. Even though it never attempts the ambitiousness of something like “Syriana,” it can be a little confusing in places, especially when multiple characters are introduced in a matter of moments. The pacing also gets bogged down in the second act, slowing down considerably when the investigation gets underway. Meanwhile, the ending approaches a sense of being too convenient and neatly wrapped up, in a way violating the film’s core perception of realism it was trying to create.
While not as compelling as his masterful sports drama “Friday Night Lights,” Berg has still put together a worthwhile look into a team of a different sort faced with far graver dilemmas. Managing to be both exciting and absorbing, it nevertheless falters in its execution of story and characters, particularly in the middle section. It’s a shame because the film concludes with a scene so powerfully poignant, it casts the rest of the movie in an entirely different perspective—evidence of the high level of promise it failed to completely encompass.
The Verdict: B (86%)
|Tags: The Kingdom, Movie, Review
|Concert Review - The Academy Is w/ AFS, TRS, Sherwood @ HOB Anaheim (9.21.07)
|Fresh off their opening stint for Fall Out Boy during this summer’s Honda Civic Tour, The Academy Is… is now in the midst of the first headlining tour in support of their second album, Santi. Boasting three very good opening bands, all of which were solid live, last Friday night’s stop of the Sleeping With Giants Tour at Anaheim’s House Of Blues is likely to be one of the best shows this fall.|
Starting the night off was San Luis Obispo’s own Sherwood, who turned in a 30-minute set of seven delectable pop-rock songs. “Never Ready To Leave” got things going right off the bat, led by the dual vocal exchange of lead singer/bassist Nate Henry and singer/guitarist Dan Koch. For the rest of the time, they drew almost exclusively from their latest release A Different Light (the only old song was “Learn To Sing”), with highlights including “The Best In Me,” “Song In My Head,” and the stirring closer “For The Longest Time,” which showed off Henry’s vocal range. My only complaint was the similarity between this set list and those from their last two tours. It would have been nice to see them switch things up more or better yet receive an extended playing time. Nevertheless, it was another impressive display.
After Sherwood was The Rocket Summer, who stole the show with a 30-minute set simply bursting forth with energy. From the first song “Break It Out,” they had the whole place moving, and it never let up from there. Whether it was oldies “Around The Clock” and “Brat Pack” or new stuff like “Do You Feel” and “So Much Love,” it was all fantastically done, easily turning into the highlight of the evening. Lead singer Bryce Avary is one of the most energetic frontman I’ve seen, constantly moving around and giving his all while never missing a note in the process. Switching off from guitar to piano almost every other song, he showcased his extraordinary musical talents, even playing the drums during one transition. The only disappointment was once again how short the set was. The release of this summer’s Do You Feel and a live show that can’t be missed should ensure it won’t stay that way for much longer.
Armor For Sleep was given the difficult task of following up The Rocket Summer. While they weren’t able to match their effort, they still put together a solid nine-song, 40-minute outing. Kicking things off in high fashion was “The Truth About Heaven,” displaying a harder rock sound than the rest of bands on the bill. They went on to play several favorites off of their last release What To Do When You Are Dead, with obvious standouts being “Remember To Feel Real,” “Stay On The Ground” and “Car Underwater.” The New Jersey outfit also showcased a handful of new tunes off of next month’s Smile For Them, indicating a heavier direction on tracks such as “Williamsburg” and “Smile For The Camera.” Throughout the set, singer/guitarist Ben Jorgensen delivered consistent vocals, and the other band members sounded tight musically. Even though it was the weakest performance of the night, it was by no means a bad one, and proved why they have now achieved major label status.
Closing the night was The Academy Is…, who put on an entertaining show over the course of their 75-minute set. The Chicago quintet started things off in style with “Same Blood” before transitioning to older songs “Attention” and “Slow Down.” This proved to be a trademark of the night as the band split 18 songs evenly between their two albums. All of their best songs were included too, from the old (“The Phrase That Pays,” “Black Mamba,” “Down And Out,”) to the new (“We’ve Got A Big Mess On Our Hands,” “Bulls In Brooklyn,” “Neighbors,” “Seed”). They closed with “Checkmarks,” one of their finest songs to date, before coming out to encore with the b-side “40 Steps” and an impassioned performance of “Almost Here,” which ended things perfectly.
Frontman William Beckett’s rock persona was also on full display the entire night, which was quite amusing. Whether strutting around on stage or posing atop the risers, he demonstrated a remarkable presence, and it seemed he was able to work the crowd into a frenzy with the simple twist of his hand. Despite the antics, he never came across as arrogant or ungrateful, and his vocals were spot on for almost every song. The rest of the band, while not nearly as fun to watch, performed well in his shadow.
It baffles me how The Academy Is… has not received more mainstream attention, especially considering how they are among Fall Out Boy’s inner circle and Beckett can actually sing and perform live (unlike Panic!’s Brendon Urie). With their set, they not only showed off the musical diversity of Santi but played almost everything off of their debut as well, which was more than enough to please both old and new fans alike. Coupled with three other great up-and-coming bands, including an amazing showing from The Rocket Summer, it turned out to be quite the night for music.
|Tags: The Academy Is, Armor For Sleep, Rocket Summer, Sherwood, Concert, Review
|Movie Review - The Brave One
|In a flawed legal system amid an imperfect world, can true justice ever be attained? Can an individual, exacting justice in ways in which the system has failed, fulfill it? Or is no single person capable or even worthy of a responsibility of this magnitude, due to the inevitable reality of turning into that which he or she is trying to avenge?|
These questions and more have been examined in countless films, and “The Brave One” is the latest to offer an opinion on the role of the vigilante. The film opens in a predictable and unremarkable way—the characters and the set-up are nothing new. However, after the story catalyst, it becomes a fascinating character study, setting off to explore deeper themes. What is particularly interesting is that it is from the perspective of a woman, not often seen in these types of male-driven stories.
Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is enjoying life as the host of a successful radio show while preparing to marry the love of her life (Naveen Andrews). In the blink of an eye, a brutal mugging eradicates her world to shatters, putting her in a coma and leaving her fiancé dead. When she awakes, she is slowly transformed into someone unafraid to stand up and demand justice, by violent means if necessary. It isn’t long before her path crosses with a sympathetic detective (Terrence Howard) tracking the elusive “justice” killer, and he is soon forced to make the most difficult decision of his career.
Foster has always excelled at playing strong-willed characters and does a fine job with this one. She brings a haunted brokenness to Erica, who is desperately trying to pick up the pieces and find a reason to go on living, and it’s this depiction which makes up the backbone of the film. She also conveys believability for when Erica finds that purpose by handing out her own form of lethal judgment, discovering strength within herself she never thought attainable. Not many actresses could have pulled off this conflicting type of duality, but Foster does admirably in both areas.
Terrence Howard, while not on the same level as Foster, is solid nonetheless. Turning in his best work since his breakout year of 2005 (“Crash,” “Hustle & Flow”), he provides a determined, multi-layered performance, and the scenes between him and Foster are among the film’s highlights. He remains in top form on his own too, whether it is on the trail of the killings, wrestling with a failed marriage or dealing with a murderer he can’t put away due to the lack of evidence. Nicky Katt does a nice job as Howard’s partner, providing a few lines of comic relief that don’t feel out of place in the serious surroundings. Sadly, the same can’t be true of Naveen Andrews (Sayid from “Lost”), whose talents are sorely wasted here, amounting to little more than a cliché in his handful of scenes.
Director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Interview With The Vampire”) is successful in creating an atmosphere parallel to what Foster’s character is experiencing. The cinematography is cold and desaturated, emphasizing isolation and hopelessness. He also relies on a number of interesting shots from extreme angles, capturing Foster’s sense of paranoia in riveting fashion.
Sustained by another fantastic performance from Foster, “The Brave One” is a gripping look at a woman grappling with the dark recesses of her mind. In spite of its intriguing promise, it ultimately fails to deliver a message either well-thought out or profound. Let down by the writing and an unbelievable ending, which seem to contradict all that has come before it, the film squanders the opportunity to say anything meaningful. It really is too bad because for a second it looked like it was going to be something special.
The Verdict: B (85%)
|Tags: The Brave One, Jodie Foster, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - Mr. Woodcock
|Mr. Woodcock is the type of teacher horror stories are told about—cruel and sadistic, he revels in the joy of inflicting humiliation upon others. As a physical education teacher at a middle school, he enjoys making fun of his unathletic students, sending anyone who rubs him the wrong way off on a voyage of lap running. John Farley happened to be one of those students.|
Thirteen years after the horrors of Woodcock’s class, Farley (Sean William Scott) is a successful author of a best-selling book about how to let go of painful memories. When he learns he is going to receive a prestigious honor from his hometown, he returns to find one small surprise—his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon) is now dating his hated gym teacher (Billy Bob Thornton). Aghast by this turn of events, he takes it upon himself to break them up before it’s too late, and looks to his childhood friend Nedderman (Ethan Suplee) for assistance. Unfortunately for him, things turn out to be a lot more difficult than he anticipated.
The success or failure of a comedy can oftentimes be attributed to the actors, and this one is no different. Scott does a manageable job at carrying the film, creating a likeable persona and generating a certain amount of sympathy for his character’s situation. However, this is far from his best work here, and he simply doesn’t have many scene-stealing or memorable moments as in past films like “American Pie” or “The Rundown.”
The role of Mr. Woodcock is nothing new for Thornton (he’s recently played strikingly similar characters in “Bad News Bears” and “School For Scoundrels”), and he delivers exactly along those same expected lines. While this works here for the most part, it does start to get old after awhile, with Thornton failing to offer anything new this time around. It would be nice to see Thornton move away from these types of characters and onto something a little more stretching in his choice of upcoming projects. It also doesn’t help when they overplay his cantankerousness to the point of ridiculousness, losing with it any element of credibility the story might have had.
The supporting cast is slightly above average for a film of this nature, yet at the same time doesn’t distinguish itself either. Sarandon does a convincing job as Farley’s mom but doesn’t bring much depth to the part, and we never become entirely convinced she would fall for a guy like Woodcock in the first place. Suplee (“Mallrats,” “My Name Is Earl”), only given a handful of scenes to work with, offers a few chuckles but his comedic talents are largely wasted. Amy Poehler (“Mean Girls,” “Blades Of Glory”), who plays Farley’s book manager, isn’t bad but also isn’t very funny either, and her role doesn’t add much to the overall proceedings.
As far as the comedy aspect goes, there are a few genuinely funny scenes, though most of them were included in the trailer. Much of the humor is of the slapstick variety, which works well between Scott and Thornton but isn’t nearly as funny during the flashback sequences. The dialogue is also only so-so, with nothing sticking out as either glaringly poor or hilariously funny. Director Craig Gillespie has turned in a decent-looking film on his first try, and the only thing that sticks out as noticeably awkward is the score in a couple of scenes.
The movie offers nothing new or groundbreaking but isn’t the train wreck one would have predicted either, instead falling somewhere in the middle. While the laughs are only sporadic, the important thing is there still are some actually present, and the cast, while far from the best they are capable of, prove to be entertaining enough. “Mr. Woodcock” might not be good enough to pay $10 to see in a theater but on a night of particular boredom, it should suffice just fine as a rental.
The Verdict: C+ (78%)
|Tags: Mr. Woodcock, Billy Bob Thornton, Movie, Review
|Concert Review - Incubus w/ The Bravery @ Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (9.7.07)
|For the better part of the past decade, Incubus has been one of the forefront bands in mainstream rock. Since 1999’s Make Yourself, they have gone on to sell over 7 million records, spawning several huge radio singles in the process. On tour in support of last year’s Light Grenades, their sixth album, they brought their powerful live show to the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine last Friday.|
Before the main event, The Bravery had the job of getting things started and, for the most part, the New York quintet performed well. The band began with the energetic duo of “Fearless” and “Believe,” kicking things off on a high note. However, the rest of their 11-song, 45-minute set wasn’t without its share of ups and downs.
Splitting their songs almost evenly between their self-titled debut and this year’s The Sun And The Moon, the band was at its best with the latter and failed to impress during the former. Outside of the opener and the hit “An Honest Mistake,” the older material tended to mesh together and skewer towards a generic styling of similar sounding bands. The newer material, such as “Time Won’t Let Me Go” and “Every Word Is A Knife In My Ear,” fared much better, showing an improved musicianship and songwriting ability while employing a fuller rock sound.
Performance-wise, guitarist Michael Zakarin threw in a couple nice solos, and lead singer Sam Endicott’s voice translated fairly well live, although he did struggle a bit on some of the higher notes. He also needs to learn to keep a guitar in his hands at all times because on the few songs without one, he flailed about with the mike stand in tow, demonstrating an awkward stage presence. Overall, the band’s show was solid if unspectacular, merely providing a glimpse at their future potential.
In front of a roaring, sold-out crowd, Incubus opened with the subdued “Quicksand” before blasting into the rocking trio of “A Kiss To Send Us Off,” “Nice To Know You” and “Anna Molly.” The remainder of the hour and forty-five minutes consisted of an eclectic 18-song set list, which should have come as no surprise to fans of the band.
While hits like “Stellar,” “Drive,” “Megalomaniac,” “Dig,” and their latest “Oil And Water” were scattered throughout, the band also went deep into their catalogue with songs “Nowhere Fast,” “Circles,” “Pistola,” “Here In My Room,” a b-side to Light Grenades entitled “Punch-Drunk,” a cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and even dusted off oldie “Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song).” Noticeably missing were classics “Pardon Me” and “Wish You Were Here,” as well as others like “Warning” and “Talk Shows On Mute,” but these omissions proved to be the set’s only disappointments.
The Calabasas five-piece is an undeniably gifted group of musicians, and that talent was on full display over the course of the night. Lead singer Brandon Boyd has arguably the purest voice in rock music today, and his vocals were pitch perfect the entire time. Guitarist Mike Einziger demonstrated his amazing creativity with several impressive solos, and the band wasn’t afraid to break out into some improvised jam sessions as well. This was no more apparent than during their striking rendition of “Sick Sad Little World,” which featured remarkable drum, bass, and guitar solos, one right after another.
With no pyrotechnics or fancy light show sharing the spotlight, Incubus let their music stand for itself. After being together for over 15 years, it is rare to see a band like this continually push themselves musically while at the same time maintaining a high level of quality. Therefore it was only fitting they chose to close with the Asian-tinged “Aqueous Transmission,” complete with Einziger playing the Japanese instrument pipa, going out in their own unique style. As Friday’s night performance indicated, this is a band clearly in their prime.
|Tags: Incubus, The Bravery, Concert, Review
|Movie Review - Shoot 'Em Up
|“Shoot ‘Em Up” is essentially a movie about guns and killing people with them in interesting ways, and it deserves credit for never pretending to be anything more than that. Basically everything you need to know happens within the opening five minutes, as the premise is about as simple and clear-cut as it can get.|
Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) happens to oversee a pregnant lady attacked by a group of assassins and comes to her rescue, going so far as to deliver the baby amid a torrent of gunfire. Smith, who later gets some help from a local prostitute (Monica Bellucci), then takes it upon himself to keep the baby safe from Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and his platoon of goons, as the conspiracy involving the baby slowly begins to unravel.
How much one will like the movie hinges on whether or not they will be able to accept its hyperrealist setting. With several references to Looney Tunes, it oftentimes plays as a kind of action movie cartoon, complete with exaggerated acting and outrageous shootouts. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, it wisely keeps its sense of humor intact, unafraid to wear its ridiculousness on its sleeve.
Delivering on the promise of its title, the film is a wild rollercoaster with rarely a dull moment. Boasting several extensive gun battles that would make John Woo proud, the fight scenes are clearly the film’s apex. At times, it is quite impressive to see what director Michael Davis is able to come up with, utilizing a vast array of guns, car chases, and more uses for a carrot than thought possible. The only time it is overly cheesy to the point of distraction is during the skydiving sequence which, while still fun, is poorly constructed and too obviously fake.
The actors aren’t given a lot of material to work with yet make the most of what little they do have. Owen is once again in his wisecracking, tough guy mode and fits the part perfectly. Excelling in the action scenes and delivering snappy one-liners, he offers a hint at what his James Bond interpretation would have looked like.
As the villain, Giamatti holds nothing back in his over-the-top performance. The role seems to be a bit beneath what the talented actor has done recently (“Sideways,” “Cinderella Man”), but he seems to be enjoying himself here, so it rubs off on the audience. On the other hand, Bellucci is reduced to little more than a pretty faced babysitter for when Smith goes off to fight, and is given too limited a screen time to build anything worthwhile into her character.
Outside of the shootouts, the movie doesn’t have much going for it. The character development and exposition is kept to a minimum to emphasize what it’s clearly all about—the action. While this keeps it from getting needlessly sidetracked, it also means its depth perception is extremely constrained. Its sense of logic follows the same pattern, including the big reveal at the end.
The film’s main strength lies in its well staged and executed action scenes, along with another entertaining performance by Clive Owen, and anyone expecting something more than a no-holds-barred gunfight flick should probably look elsewhere. However, for those who are able to look past its one dimensionality, it will prove to be a wacky and fun-filled ride, albeit one which is easily forgotten.
The Verdict: B- (82%)
|Tags: Shoot 'Em Up, Clive Owen, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - 3:10 To Yuma
|Over the last decade, westerns have become taboo in Hollywood, reducing the once great genre to a mere afterthought most executives wouldn’t touch with a stick. While it wasn’t abandoned altogether, evidenced by the presence of “American Outlaws,” “Open Range” and “The Missing”, none of the films were huge box office hits or anything exceptional. “3:10 To Yuma” looks to change all this.|
A remake of the 1957 film, the story follows struggling rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who is about to have his farm confiscated by the railroad. He and his two sons accidentally witness a stagecoach robbery by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), and shortly thereafter Evans plays a key role in Wade’s capture. Desperate for money, he volunteers to join four other men in escorting Wade to the train that will take him to prison. However, their journey is far from an easy one, with Wade’s gang in hot pursuit.
The main reason the movie works as well as it does can be attributed to the acting, which is superb. Bale, who is less of a tough guy here then what we’re used to seeing (“American Psycho,” “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige”), is terrific. With a bum leg, he finds himself trying to vindicate his manhood, both to himself and his son, while keeping his moral code intact. Over the last few years, Bale has progressed into one of the best actors working today, and while his work here will almost assuredly be overlooked come award’s season, it is among the year’s best.
Of course, it helps tremendously when you’re acting across from the great Russell Crowe, who shines in a rare villainous turn. Smooth talking one minute with guns blazing the next, Crowe adds a layer of depth and complexity to the archetypical outlaw character not usually seen. Even though it doesn’t rank among his best performances, a true testament to his previous work, it remains captivating, and the scenes between him and Bale are especially engaging.
The supporting cast also deserves accolades for their work, as they are excellent across the board. The biggest surprise is Ben Foster (“X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Alpha Dog”), who excels as Charlie Prince, Wade’s ruthless right hand man. In deliciously evil fashion, his sheer brutality is able to upstage Crowe, becoming the truly wicked villain of the piece. Other standouts include Peter Fonda as a hired Pinkerton, Dallas Roberts as a railroad businessman, Alan Tudyk as a doctor, and there’s even a cameo by a famous brother comedian to look out for.
With the script, the writers do a great job at reinterpreting the western for a modern audience. Westerns tend to be relatively straightforward with regards to plot, yet this one manages to throw in several twists and turns, making sure to keep things interesting along the way. It also doesn’t save all the action for the inevitable shootout at the end, mixing in a healthy dosage throughout its entirety. Despite all the action, it still is very much a character-driven story, and there is much more going on below the surface than a couple of cool gunfights.
The film almost makes it through without any major problems but stumbles slightly when it comes to the ending. Something about it feels out of place, whether it is the seemingly illogical turn the story and characters take, or the way it borders on being too Hollywood-like for its own good and wrapped up too neatly. While it’s not a bad ending by any means, it’s not the powerful or classic inducing one it deserved.
Backed by an amazing cast, “3:10 To Yuma” is proof there is still life to be found in a western. In addition to offering several exciting action scenes, it is an absorbing look at two very different men who are perhaps more alike than they think. James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted,” “Identity,” “Walk The Line,”) has turned in another solid directing job, and is to be commended for taking a chance on this one. Not only is his film easily the best western since “Unforgiven,” it’s also one of the most compelling released this year.
The Verdict: B+ (88%)
|Tags: 3:10 To Yuma, Christian Bale, Russell Crow, Western, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - Halloween
|In 1978, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” burst onto the scene, widely popularizing the slasher genre while becoming one of horror’s most iconic films. Now nearly 30 years later, rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie (“House Of 1,000 Corpses,” “The Devil’s Rejects”) offers his own interpretation of the classic story.|
This is the ninth film in the “Halloween” canon, and the first to attempt a retelling of the original. When Zombie, whose first two features generated a small cult audience, was announced as the man behind the project, fan reaction was decidedly mixed. After viewing the final result, it seems their misgivings were entirely justified.
The new tale of Michael Myers picks up during his childhood, where we witness his dysfunctional family, his encounter with the school bully, and his attraction to killing animals. One day he snaps, going on a killing spree and murdering four people, including his father and sister. We then fast forward a number of years, watching as Myers escapes from prison and returns to haunt his hometown.
Zombie proves to do a better job at directing than thought possible, though he never rises above a passable threshold. Favoring close-ups and shaky camerawork too heavily, he hasn’t figured out how to convey a sense of geography, which makes some of the scenes unnecessarily confusing. He also chooses to go for an increase in gore rather than psychological tension, discarding the very element which made the original so successful.
Still, his directing is far superior to his skill as a writer, which is immeasurably limited. The dialogue is clunky and poorly constructed, with several one-liners painfully sticking out. The storyline lacks depth and originality, never gelling cohesively or offering substance to keep the viewer interested. It seems he does little more than move aimlessly from one killing to the next, especially in the second half, never bothering to develop any of the characters or provide us a reason to care about their deaths or peril. This results in a story both shallow and empty, with an emotional center nothing more than a hollowed chasm.
The acting, while an improvement over the writing, remains far from first-rate, and none of the cast members accomplish anything of note. Daeg Faerch, who plays the younger Myers, portrays a kid with serious problems well enough, but never gets under our skin or exemplifies the chillingly evil we expect. Tyler Mane, the older Myers, is reduced to a giant in a mask, and it’s curiously never explained how he managed to transform his body from a little kid into one resembling a wrestler. The Jamie Lee Curtis character from the original, played with little skill by Scout Taylor-Compton, is reminiscent of an annoying Lindsey Lohan, and she is never able to generate sympathy or likeability in her role.
The big deal with this remake was supposed to be how it was going to shed light on Myer’s past, giving us an inside look at the man behind the mask. Unfortunately, the lengthy back story affords no real insight into the matter, succumbing to several movie clichés instead. What is left of the remainder is a condensed rehash of the original, with an increase in sleaze factor and a much higher body count. Gone with it is the possibility of anything innovative or entertaining, and ultimately a reason to watch, leaving “Halloween” nothing more than the latest in Hollywood’s long line of remakes which never should have been made in the first place.
The Verdict: C- (71%)
|Tags: Halloween, Rob Zombie, Horror, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - War
|Jet Li and Jason Statham are prototypical examples of how to be modern-day action movie stars, and their repertoire of films showcases their amazing abilities in both martial arts and stunts. Reuniting for the first time since 2001’s mediocre “The One,” it would be logical to assume their latest film “War” would be a worthy addition to their careers.|
The plot is what one would expect from a movie of this sort—an assorted hodgepodge of the stories from a dozen or so other films, amassed and thrown together here to fill the gaps in between the action. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Statham) is on the hunt for the mysterious assassin known only as Rogue (Li), who happened to kill Crawford’s partner three years ago. In the meantime, a deadly feud ensues between the Chinese and Japanese mobs, and Crawford and Rogue are caught right in the middle.
In a movie such as this, the plot is essentially reduced to an afterthought to make room for the action sequences, which are the main draw and reason to see the film in the first place. Unfortunately, someone should have reminded the filmmakers of this.
The movie inexplicably gets bogged down by its second-rate plot, relying more often on the dialogue instead of the stunts. The more time they focus on the story, the more we realize how poor and cliché-driven it is, a weakness it never recovers from. Matters only worsen when they pull off a huge twist of an ending so ridiculous it’s hard to take any of it seriously.
When the action finally does come, which is at a fairly consistent rate throughout the second half, it fails to live up to its billing. While it’s not bad, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before, and done better previously by the parties involved. The at-times hyperactive editing doesn’t add much, if anything, and none of the film’s fights exhibit any sort of a “wow” element.
Li and Statham regrettably only have a handful of scenes together and, when they do finally meet up for their big confrontation, it can only be defined as disappointing. One would have thought choreographer Cory Yuen (“The Transporter”) could have been able to think up something far more creative, especially considering the talent he had at his disposal.
As far as the acting is concerned, it’s nothing special either. Li isn’t given too much to do other than look menacing, failing to build on his recent string of strong performances (“Hero,” “Unleashed,” “Fearless”). The martial arts aspect also tends to take a backseat to the gunplay, a questionable decision because martial arts are when Li is at his best.
Statham doesn’t fare much better. His cynical sense of humor and distinct charisma, which he exhibited in his early Guy Ritchie days (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) and in last year’s “Crank,” is curiously missing. Here, only his customary gruff persona is on display, which robs Statham of the very reason why is so entertaining to watch. The cast is also brought down by the presence of John Lone, the annoying villain from “Rush Hour 2,” who is up to more of his grating over-the-top antics as the leader of the Chinese mob.
In the end, for a movie named “War,” there certainly isn’t as much fighting as one would expect. Instead, it spends too much time dwelling on its shoddy storyline and not enough providing the types of spectacles action aficionados anticipate. For Li and Statham fans, it’s still worth watching at some point just to see them together again, but for everyone else, there’s really not much incentive.
The Verdict: C (75%)
|Tags: War, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - Superbad
|It seems everything Judd Apatow is touching these days turns into gold. From directing "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" to producing "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights" and now "Superbad," Apatow has become one of Hollywood's hottest commodities. Yet despite what the advertisements might say, attributing the success of "Superbad" solely to him would be doing the movie a major disservice.|
The plot is simple enough—best friends Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) are on a quest for alcohol so they can score with their high school crushes at a party. They are joined by the seemingly anti-cool Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the only one of them who has a fake ID, and it isn't long before two blundering cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) are thrown into the mix. However, as you can guess, nothing really goes according to plan.
The movie's true strength lies in its casting, with all the leads playing their parts to a T. Cera's straight and ungainly portrayal of Evan plays well off Hill's over-the-top and vociferous Seth, yet it's the supporting characters that oftentimes end up overshadowing them. Newcomer Mintz-Plasse steals the spotlight as Fogell (or the now infamous McLovin); his character is so outlandish it's hard to do anything but laugh. Rogen and Hader, who play two of the worst cops ever known to man, are equally entertaining to watch, and the scenes between the three are some of the film's strongest.
The writing is also above par for your average teen comedy. The script, by real life childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is tightly written and consistently funny. Even the third act, typically the time in which a comedy switches gears for a more serious mode, manages to keep the laughs coming. They also interweave several pop culture references throughout (a staple of Apatow's films), and do a pretty good job at capturing the awkwardness high school can produce.
For all it does right, Superbad is not without its fair share of problems, the most glaring being a shallow emotional core. While a minimal plot and thin characterization isn't a bad thing per se, it can hinder a film from being a genuinely great one. Once you get past the laughs the writers constantly throw towards the screen, it's not hard to realize there's not much below the surface. One of the strengths of Apatow's directorial efforts is the depth and feeling he injects into the story, which is missing to a certain degree here. I don't know if it's the fault of first time director Greg Mottola, but we never acquire a reason to really care for Evan's and Seth's plights, other than wondering what crazy thing will happen next.
The film is also setback by a few moments which take the story out of the sense of reality it seems to be striving for. For example, the part involving Seth's childhood drawings is so curiously contrived, not to mention overplayed, that it feels more gratuitous than funny. Some of the dialogue balances this same boundary, at times working to hilarious heights and other moments teetering over the edge. It's this kind of duality which I found to be a bit tedious and annoying, and one which I could have done without.
So the real question remains: does Superbad live up to the hype? The answer is both yes and no. Without a doubt it is one of the funniest movies of the last few years, and one in which repeat viewings are likely needed just to be able to take in the plethora of jokes. Unfortunately, it never is able to transcend to anything much more than that. For some that will be just fine, for others it won't, but in a time when Hollywood calls "Norbit" and "Wild Hogs" hit comedies, it's refreshing to have something actually accomplish the comedy aspect.
The Verdict: B (86%)
|Tags: Superbad, Judd Apatow, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, McLovin, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - Smokin' Aces
|The Story: There’s a contract out on Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a seedy entertainer who has decided to turn state’s evidence against the Vegas mob. This attracts the attention of an eclectic mix of bounty hunters, and the FBI quickly responds by dispensing two agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) for safekeeping. A wild showdown in Tahoe ensues soon thereafter.|
The Good: Ryan Reynolds turns in another strong performance, showcasing more of a serious side than what he’s known for. Rising above everyone else in the large ensemble, he carries every scene he appears in. Ray Liotta and Ben Affleck also do good jobs with what they’re given, the only other notables among the cast besides Matthew Fox’s fun cameo. The shootout sequences are pretty well done and the movie features some good editing, including a number of cool transitions. I was also surprised by the ending and the fact that it was able to make a point out of the nonsensical chaos preceding it.
The Bad: The film tries to duplicate Guy Ritchie’s early work, failing miserably on nearly all accounts. In terms of likeable or appealing characters, there are none (outside of Reynolds and Liotta). The others characters are all wholly despicable and uninteresting, destroying any sense of empathy or concern over their fates. The acting follows suit, excelling in inconsistency and a lack of depth. Andy Garcia seems to be doing a bad Andy Garcia impersonation, complete with a horrible accent, rather than creating a character. Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson never connect with the audience and are given way too much screen time. Even the great Jeremy Piven cannot rise above the constraints of his unsympathetic character, leaving the audience without any reason to invest in whether he lives or dies. The storyline is convoluted, and several times it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. The movie also tries to be funny, a Guy Ritchie staple, but never succeeds. It doesn’t help that what it considers to be humor is either too dark or just plain weird that it never actually is (aka the psycho kid).
The Verdict: I loved Joe Carnahan’s previous film, Narc, and was anxiously looking forward to his next movie, which unfortunately kept getting stalled due to an extended run of bad luck (see M:i:III). Unfortunately, Smokin’ Aces isn’t worth the wait. The movie is largely a disappointment, with major faults in both the execution but especially the characters. In the end, Joe Carnahan is way too talented of a filmmaker to turn out something as sub par as this.
The Score: C+ (77%)
|Tags: Smokin' Aces, Joe Carnahan, Ryan Reynolds, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - Hot Fuzz
|The Story: Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), a hotshot cop from London, suddenly finds himself transferred to the seemingly quiet and crime-free village of Sandford. However after a series of grisly accidents, he teams up with clumsy local cop Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), and together they uncover the village’s deep dark secret.|
The Good: Writer/director Edgar Wright, actor/writer Simon Pegg, and actor Nick Frost, the team behind the cult smash Shaun Of The Dead, are back for their encore. This time instead of taking on zombies, the trio presents their view of the action-comedy genre and movies such as Bad Boys II and Point Break. Like before, humor is littered throughout, always keeping things entertaining rather than overly serious. Pegg and Frost once again prove their talent as actors as well as their comedic chops, and the unique chemistry between the two is the driving force behind the film. Edgar Wright also shows off his growth as a director, utilizing the action set pieces and slick editing to great effect. The big shootout at the end is one of the highlights, so over-the-top that it becomes a ridiculously fun time. The rest of the British cast is great in the way only British actors can be, and there are a handful of humorous cameos to watch out for.
The Bad: The film suffers from pacing problems. Once Pegg reaches the village, it takes a while for things to really get going, and the middle portion tends to drag as a result. The film runs on the long side, with the ending going on a little too long (as many action movies do). The movie, while funny, wasn't the hilarious romp I was hoping for, and didn’t come across quite as fresh or brilliant as Shaun. There is also a fine line between the art of parody and becoming that which you are making light of. While it balances this well overall, there are a couple of moments where it veers towards the latter, although not nearly to the extent which has plagued movies such as Team America.
The Verdict: The creators of Shaun Of The Dead have created another enjoyable take on a popular genre, but is their sophomore effort able to surpass their first? That is hard to answer, as it took me a couple of views to really absorb Shaun. So as of right now, I am hesitant to call it better, but I look forward to the repeat viewings needed to fully gauge the heat of the Fuzz.
The Score: B (86%)
|Tags: Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Movie, Review
|Movie Review - Disturbia
The Story: After an altercation at school, troubled teen Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is sentenced to three months of house arrest. Stuck at home, he soon becomes bored and turns to spying on his neighbors to pass the time. It doesn’t take long before he becomes suspicious that one of them (David Morse) is up to something devious and, with the help of his best friend (Aaron Yoo) and the girl next door (Sarah Roemer), he begins to investigate further.
The Good: From the get go, it is clear that this is Shia LaBeouf’s movie, and he responds by carrying it with a tremendous ease not often seen in those twice his age. I am a big fan of his, having seen nearly all of his films, and this one only adds to my belief that he is the best actor today under 25. He not only is able to play the movie’s lighter and comical scenes to great effect but also excels at the dramatic and suspenseful ones, giving his character a well-rounded edge. This type of charisma and depth is rarely seen in a movie such as this, which is the main reason why this film is able to rise above the recent crop of similar genre related fare. The rest of the cast, although not as strong as LaBeouf, is still above average. David Morse does a fantastic job at portraying a genuinely creepy guy where the entire time you know something sinister is lurking underneath his fake sincerity. Aaron Yoo is able to provide some good laughs, and Sarah Roemer makes for a good romantic lead that has problems of her own. While it was weird seeing Carrie-Ann Moss in a “normal” role, she is able to pull it off. I also commend the film for offering a few surprising scenes that I genuinely didn’t see coming.
The Bad: This film isn’t exactly original in its storytelling (the general idea is borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rear Window), so it doesn’t take too long before you can pretty much figure out how everything is going to play out. I found it a little strange that adults are conspicuously absent for most of the time. Also for some reason, the filmmakers decided to add an endless buildup right before the ending and, so when it finally does come, it’s not as big or exciting as what you were expecting.
The Verdict: While Disturbia can be a bit derivative at times, the journey along the way is both fun and exciting. Shia LaBeouf’s talent and likeable personality, combined with the film’s better than average direction, is what makes it all come together and be a success. LaBeouf, who is set to star in this summer’s Transformers and next summer’s Indiana Jones IV, is posed on the brink of stardom and, if Disturbia’s opening weekend is any indication, that time is near at hand.
The Score: B+ (87%)
|Tags: Disturbia, Shia LaBeouf, Movie, Review