Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald) and I on the week’s new releases (11/17/09)

I always know we’re up for some seriously good new DVD releases when I get an e-mail from Videoport Jones that starts with the phrase “BIG WEEK!” How big? Jim Jarmusch, JJ Abrams, Park Chan-wook and Sacha Baron Cohen. Bruno! Mr. Spock! Vampires!

The Limits of Control

Videoport Jones: “Videoport has gone big on this one, the new film by American indie maverick Jim Jarmusch, despite the fact that it is almost certain to puzzle, alienate, and confound most people. (A testament to how hip the Videoport renters are, or stubborn support of our heroes? You decide.) Unsurprisingly, I really liked this one; Jarmusch (‘Mystery Train,’ ‘Ghost Dog,’ ‘Night on Earth,’ ‘Down by Law,’ ‘Dead Man,’ ‘Stranger Than Paradise,’ ‘Broken Flowers’) is, to be certain, an acquired taste, but I have most definitely acquired it for his deadpan funny, mysteriously moving body of work. Here, Jarmusch regular, Issach De Bankole (he was the Parisian taxi driver in ‘Night on Earth’ and Ghost Dog’s only friend, the Haitian ice cream man) plays, well, who does he play, exactly? Impeccably dressed, he says very little (perhaps thirty lines of dialogue the entire film), and his striking face (which you’ll get to know very well indeed) reveals little more. He is sent on a mission of some kind, which takes him to Spain, and a decreasingly-luxurious succession of hotel rooms. He sits at cafes and waits, until a parade of eccentric contacts meets him, says cryptic things, seemingly unrelated to whatever his task is, and then he moves on, saying nothing, his eyes all-aware but impassive. There are hints, tantalizing clues: matchbooks, coded messages on immediately-swallowed slips of paper, two cappuccinos, in separate cups, a helicopter, wooden string instruments, paintings, a repeated code phrase. His contacts (intriguing turns by the likes of John Hurt, Youki Kudoh, Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, and others) all speak cryptically; usually they seem to be ruminating on art, film, music, their noncommittal asides full of literary and cinematic allusion. They seem to know more than he, but also hint that they, too, are on a mission they only partly understand. There’s some Beckett in the journey, a hint of Pinter, perhaps. A subtly building menace that creeps into the soundtrack as the films goes on. When the ending comes, it makes a certain amount of sense, if you make sense of it that way. Sure, it’s, as they say, ‘not for everyone,’ but if you don’t want it, I’ll take your share. A mystery. A puzzle. I was mesmerized.”

Justin: “It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a tortilla, covered in a hard-chocolate

Cool cats.

shell. Delicious. Look, I’m not going to pretend to try and throw any conceived meaning on this movie because that would not only make me look foolish, but also do a disservice to Mr. Jarmusch. But how do you really describe such a lush yet sparse movie? A movie that captivates you because you’re studying every inch of the screen for action or meaning and gets you to stick around because every next scene could be THE scene that brings it all together. It feels a bit like a con if you think about it, but really, that’s imaginative storytelling and amazingly nuanced direction. This movie could be about absolutely nothing, but it’s crafted in a way that all you know is there is a strange sense of menace crawling up your back and you’ve got to keep watching to get rid of it. Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying this movie is about nothing and is such a sucker punch to the mind that it’s not worth viewing. No, I’m just saying know what you are getting into. And if you want a curious, untraditional movie that will challenge and surprise you, then this is the one. And needless to say if you’re a Jarmusch fan like my associate here, then you need no prodding.”

Star Trek

VPJ: “I’m a geek. This is no secret: comics, baseball, movies, Joss Whedon, you name it. But, while I’m fine with the whole Star Trek thing, I can’t say my geekdom extends that far. So, when aging TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams decided to reboot the franchise from the beginning, I wasn’t, like some geeks, burning up the interwebs sifting through the minutia of the plot for canonical errata, but was merely mildly interested, mainly because my main man Simon Pegg was going to live out his nerdy dream by playing the young Scotty. Upon seeing it- I gotta say I was pretty impressed. The movie is genuinely exciting and, what’s most surprising, it manages to avoid the whole prequel “it’s all in-jokes and safe fan-stroking” by introducing a whole time travel, alternate universe angle which allows for some actual peril for the once-sacrosanct characters. The actors all seem to be having some fun: Chris Pine is a cocky, fun Kirk (and the movie seems to take great delight in making fun of him), Zachary Quinto’s an excellent, surprisingly-sexy Spock, Karl Urban nails Bones’ irascible humor, and the Pegger is a hoot, while John Cho (Sulu), and Anton Yelchin (Chekov) are cool, too. Eric Bana has some fun as the main baddie, and, of course, even a semi-Star Trek geek like myself got goosebumps when a certain original cast member turned up. (So sue me). And, as for the whole “alternate universe so anything can happen reboot”, well, it was a fun idea, but (and here the comic geek in me rears his pimply head), such tinkering shenanigans can alienate even (especially) the most loyal fans, so we’ll see how long until the faithful turn on the whole (pardon me for this) enterprise (it’s the reason I stopped reading the ‘X Men’ after a while). All in all, a solid, fun action movie.”

JE: “Jonesy, set phasers to ‘OH MY GOD!’ I don’t know if I’ll be able to contain my raw geekery over this movie, but I’ll try and make it through the review…THE SHIP WAS SOOOO COOL! Ahem. This movie could have been a colossal failure simply by virture of being a reboot, not to mention betting on a largely unknown cast and playing the ‘young and sexy crew’ card very heavily. Aside from that you’re 100 percent correct about the power of fanboy rage, though not entirely deadly it can contribute to any reboot’s demise…WHAT THE HECK IS SPOCK DOING…sorry. And this is to say nothing of dabbling in time travel, which, as we’ve discussed recently, is a terribly messy affair that is typically avoided. And yet, this movie GOES BOLDY…ahem, sorry. This movie, you know what this movie does, it makes Star Trek fun for everyone. Sorry I had to say that fellow fanboys, but as someone who stuck with the franchise through multiple exploding Enterprises, sexy borgs and Captain Bakula, Star Trek stopped being fun. This movie is fun, a nod to the faithful…THERE GOES A RED SHIRT…and open to newbies (such as my lady, who’s rooting interest going into the movie was underrated John Cho as well as the Fantastic Mr. Pegg). There’s chemistry between the crew (OH MY GOD IS THERE EVER…again, I apologize), amazing special effects and a story that not only makes sense but moves along at a great pace. Abrams played the percentages well on this one, combining his knack for character plays with a little geekiness, some whiz-bang-pow-ery and excellent performances by the whole ensemble (including a great Bruce Greenwood doing a great ‘grizzled vet’ in a pivotal role). Is the movie perfect, well, no. But again, it’s about the percentages, and Abrams got it right…WARP FACTOR FUN! God, I am so sorry about that. Let’s move on.”

Bruno

VPJ: “Sacha Baron Cohen likes to make people uncomfortable. Politicians, small town bigots, celebrities, Eminem, me. Especially me. Man does he make me squirm, a rictus of anxious anticipation on my face as I wait for his next assault on my inner calm. Which is a compliment, of course. Like Andy Kaufman and similar agents provocateur before him, Cohen has the genius (and the brass cojones) to devise situations which, more often than not, provoke reactions in unsuspecting subjects which bring out their, and their society’s, underlying prejudices, fears, and hang-ups as adroitly as any sociology textbook. Plus, he’s about a thousand times funnier. As with Borat (and his other alter ego Ali G), though, Bruno walks the fine line between insightfully funny and just plain mean and offputting, which makes the whole experience sort of a queasy affair for me. When his flamboyant gay fashionista picks the right targets (he’s largely concerned with America’s slavering desire for fame, and its equally slavering homophobia this time), ‘Bruno’ is horrifyingly transcendent (his stunt with a bloodthirsty MMA crowd is a classic), but sometimes the whole enterprise comes off as pointlessly mean. I dunno – I’m glad Cohen’s around (the world could due with being kept on its toes), but he just plain makes my tummy hurt.”

JE: “More than any other comedian who has played the ‘agent of chaos’ role, Cohen is disturbingly good at playing around in that icky, uncomfortable, assumption-challenging place. Here’s the thing, it’s relatively easy to GET ALL UP IN PEOPLE’S FACES, because we see hacks and so-caled pranksters do it all the time. They’re like the kids who would repeatedly whack at bee hives during school recess.  It takes big brass ones to get yourself into a character, create a window to get through to people and then savagely provoke them…and get out of every scenario alive. Cohen deserves credit for that first and foremost, but also (as anyone who has suffered through a bad SNL-skit-turned-movie), drawing a movie out of a sketch comedy idea or character is not easy. Sure ‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’ use the same convention of a character with a camera crew, but instead of the movie looking like a series of sketches laced together poorly by a few transitions, you have an actual film from beginning to end. Now, having said all that, I don’t care for this one. As much as I like Cohen and appreciate what he does, I had enough with ‘Borat’ and honestly the schtick feels a little thin. Of course I may just be less willing to deal with the case of the wiggins Cohen inspires than you Jonesy.”

Thirst

VPJ: “Before reading this review, if you haven’t seen the Korean movie ‘Oldboy,’ go to Videoport right now and rent it. I’ll wait… There! Now you want to see everything director Park Chan-wook has ever done, so why not continue with this, his most recent film, about a saintly priest who, in attempting to help cure a deadly virus, volunteers for a medical procedure which, well, kills him, resurrects him, and (side effect!) turns him into a vampire. Oops. Like ‘Oldboy’ (and the director’s other films like ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,’ ‘Lady Vengeance’), ‘Thirst’ combines the standard beats of the action or horror genre with haunting performances, virtuoso direction, and grand themes to create incredibly intense, mesmerizing cinema. As the hero confronts his new existence, finds himself drawn to a beautiful young woman, and, yeah, drinks a lot o’ blood, his journey becomes something epic, operatic, and profoundly moving. Destined for cult status like the director’s other films, ‘Thirst’ is haunting.”

JE: “MORE vampires? Snooze! But I joke, mostly because vampires are becoming so damn ubiquitous that it’s a joke. Aren’t vampries supposed to be secretive, mysterious and elusive? Then how come I SEE THEM EVERYWHERE?! Ok, had to get that out of my system, and with good reason because here we have an interesting take onthe vampire movie. Not only does Park Chan-wook provide a novel and almost (but not really) explanation for a vampire, but he takes time to give us the wrenching, tragic and frankly un-pretty bits of suddenly discovering you’re a vampire. It’s not all sexy black clothes, flights and fights kids. In my opinion, and it’s one I think you’ll share, the best vampire flicks (or shows with vamps *cough-cough* BUFFY *cough-cough*) are the ones that carefully contrast the idea of being immortal yet-removed from society, and oh, the basic fact that you’re like a big ol’ parasite with fans and good clothes. And yes kids, do as Dr. Jones says and rent the rest of Park Chan-wook’s work. We’ll wait.”

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

VPJ: “Check out this comedy all-star lineup: Jeremy Piven, Ed Helms, Craig Robinson, Kristen Schaal, Ving Rhames, Tony Hale, Rob Riggle, David Keochner, and even a cameo from Will Ferrell. Dang – how could this possibly go wrong? Well… The story of a band of mercenary used car salesmen who sweep in to save dying lots by any means necessary, “The Goods” is going for a rambunctious, free-for-all workplace comedy and it is certainly trying very hard. Too hard. The

"Okay, we're all funny, so who needs a script, right? Who's with me..."

word ‘desperation’ comes to mind. There’s a special kind of sadness that creeps into a film like this when you can see so many talented, funny people running around with no one at the reins; you can actually see the performers withering up there on the screen. It’s a bummer, too, because of the collective talent involved and because I’m still sort of happy that Jeremy Piven has become a household name. Formerly just another F.O.C. (‘friend of Cusack’), Piven has, thanks to some adept scene-stealery and, of course, ‘Entourage,’ become a bankable star in his own right and, while I’m happy for him, he’s always had to be cautious that his fratboy cockiness didn’t curdle into offputting obnoxiousness. He was not cautious enough here.”

JE: “Sounds like another ‘Semi-Pro’ if you ask me. And we all know how well THAT turned out. Here’s the thing about ‘The Goods,’ and I’m not being an apologist (because I have not watched it.), but it’s a first-time effort from director Neal Brennan, a dude most of us may be familiar with because of his work on ‘Chappelle’s Show’ and yes, ‘Half Baked.’ OK, sure, you’re saying, but what about the writing Justin? Well, there I got nothing for you. The writers are also two first-timers, and maybe a frenetic ensemble flick was not in their best interest. Could it be that the assembled talent may have eclipsed the actual script here? If you’re a writer or director you KNOW the likes of Piven, Hale, Rhames, Keochner (can this guy get an Oscar for best second-bananna of all time?) are going to deliver, so could that be a crutch? I may not be an expert on screenwriting, but if you hand an actor a half-hearted script even the best thespian can’t pull it to success. This all reminds me Jonesy, we need to get to work on that rambunctious workplace comedy involving a video store employee and a reporter. Comedy GOLD!”

Speed Round! Since it was such a tremendous week on new releases Videoport Jones offers some quick takes:

Is Anybody There? Michael Caine warms your heart (perhaps gainst your will) as a cranky oldster befriending the requisite little tyke; Ballast, Acclaimed indie drama about a poor single mom trying to protect her family against the violence around her, and a secret from her past; Humpday, Indie comedy stars “The Blair With Project’s” Josh Leonard and mumblecore maven Mark Duplass as two straight friends who double-dog dare each other into making a gay porno); How to Be, Prettyboy “Twilight” hunklet Robert Pattinson stars as a pretentious would-be artist who tries to be less of a smelly hippie; Enlighten Up, A yoga skeptic puts on his unitard to test out the stretchy discipline’s merits in this documentary; My One and Only, Coming of age dramedy starring Rene Zellweger and based on the childhood of Hollywood tanning legend George Hamilton, of all people; Margaret Cho: Beautiful, New standup from the saucy/filthy comedienne; Only the Brave, A fact-based WWII film about the all-Japanese American battalion who single-handedly shamed our entire country for putting them and all their relatives in American prison camps; Spread, Ashton Kutcher is a money-grubbing Hollywood prettyboy who makes his living by seducing older women; he also made this movie- zing!

Parting Shots:

– Are you a Jim Jarmusch fan? What’s your favorite flick?

– Did the Star Trek reboot work?

– Does Sacha Baron Cohen schtick still work?

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Published in: on November 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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