Sunday, June 15, 2008

The King of Kong

The King of Kong is a documentary about warring factions of video game nerds. Billy Mitchell has held the Donkey Kong record (and the same hairstyle) since the early 80's, and when Steve Wiebe, humble teacher and father of two, tries to beat that record, all nerd hell breaks loose. The record has consumed Billy’s life for the last 25 years, and it has shaped him into the pompous, feather-haired warrior that he is today. Everyone in the competitive video game world knows Billy, and no one would dare beat him at Donkey Kong. Steve Wiebe, after years of real-life failure, decides that he can beat that record. But Steve doesn’t belong to that world, and he doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. Hell hath no fury like a nerd scorned.
The documentary is entertaining, rather than informative. The film starts with a brief history of Billy Mitchell and how he achieves his golden god status. We meet Steve and his family, learn of his motivations, and the story begins. With the exception of interviews breaking in every so often, the film follows a narrative. The camera is there for every live moment.
Steve’s story is a great one. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking. The people he meets are so over the top, you’d think their parts were written for the screen. Yet, these are real people. This documentary wins due to the subject matter. My favorite is Brian Kuh, one of Billy’s cronies. He is so envious of Billy that he follows him like a puppy. He is constantly in defense of him and constantly doing his dirty work. He is the typical sidekick to a super villain; like Otis to Lex Luther, Muttly to Dick Dasterdly, and Grimace to Ronald McDonald. It is unbelievable that these aren’t cleverly written characters. These are real people in all their ridiculous glory. So real, in fact, that if you go on the IMDB message boards, you will likely find a few Billy Mitchell cronies lurking around, defending his actions in the movie.
This documentary is entertaining and very funny. You don’t even have to like video games to enjoy this movie. I was never a big fan of Donkey Kong, Pac Man, or any arcade game for that matter. My video game experience started at home with the Atari. Even if you're Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds, and would like nothing more than to destroy nerds, you will still appreciate the battle between Billy and Steve. The story is a classic one and epic on a smaller scale. I bet you could even get your girlfriend to watch - just don't squeal when they show the legendary "kill-screen" at the end of Donkey Kong. Nerd!

4 barrels of fun!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a conniving addict, Ethan Hawke is a walking nervous breakdown, and Marisa Tomei is a naked person in this quite lengthy "dramaction". In the film, two brothers plan to rob their parents' jewelry store in order to solve their money problems, but alas, they mess it all up. And we have to watch the mess over and over again.
I have to admit, the first 6 hours of this movie were pretty good… but the last 10 were awful. I keep thinking of that line from The Jerk, where Navin says, "I know we've only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days." The movie is only two hours, but feels like a million.
I was okay with the beginning lasting so long. We're talking character development, interesting flashbacks, intense dramatic tension, and Marisa Tomei topless for a majority of the time. "I really like this movie," I said out loud. However, the second half took nine weeks and five days to end. I think I could have watched the entire Star Trek* series in the same amount of time and I'm quite sure I would have enjoyed myself more.
Don't get me wrong, I love me a good long movie - when it needs to be long. But if you can cram your story into a 90-minute timeslot, do it - especially if your movie is boring. I think Before the Devil Knows You're Dead should have been 15 minutes. If I did the math correctly, 15 minutes would have seemed like 90. Perfect.
Let me jump back and explain one of the major themes of the movie. We have a traditional crime story, but its parts are out of order. We see the end before the beginning - similar to Pulp Fiction. After we see each piece of the story, we flash back and witness the same story from other characters' perspectives until we have a good understanding of how each major character relates. Cool right? Like I said, the first half was cool, but then we begin to flashback into the lives of the minor characters. Maybe I'm on my own here but I really don't care what the neighbor's dog thought about Hoffman's pasty white ass. Of course it didn't care; it just wants a cookie. That doesn't really happen, but you get my drift. We see a lot of perspectives that don't really matter.
I do think the actors played their roles fairly well. That's a positive. Both Hoffman and Hawke were great as neurotic losers. I actually felt sorry for Hawke and the sour relationship he had with his daughter. But after a while I grew bored of that and tried to remember the other movies I liked him in. Remember Explorers? Good movie. Marisa Tomei just played a woman. But hats off to her… or should I say clothes off… nice.
The movie ends, eventually. And even though I was a little groggy from my nap, I started to get into the adventure again. The action started to pick up, tensions were mounting, and without giving too much away, I was impressed with the Shakespearean tragedy of it all. Maybe that gives too much away. C'est la vie.
But, of course, they made a huge mistake. They forgot about a character. Hawke runs away and… nothing. I realize that some writers assume they've written enough and they assume their audience is clever enough to figure out what happens. I really tolerate most open endings. I'm usually satisfied with my own interpretation of what happens. But what happened here? I can't think of anything plausible. Did Hawke build a spaceship with River Phoenix and blast off into space to find a crazy cartoon-obsessed alien? I don't think the writer intended for there to be such an open ending. I think he just wanted a cookie and forgot to finish the script.
Anyway this movie was so dull and felt so long that I died while watching it. And because it went on long after my demise, the Devil eventually found out.
*Star Trek is stupid.

2 Devils


My wife and I waited a long time to see Juno. When we first saw the trailer, we both agreed that it looked cute and hilarious. Aside from waiting and never knowing when it would be released nearby, it was very much worth the wait. Juno is an exceptional film.
The movie centers on the title character, Juno, a bright girl that accidentally gets pregnant at age 16. She does so with the help of her best friend, Bleeker. Yet, there's no preaching here – the movie is unbiased in all aspects. The script pokes fun at both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life debate and never picks a side - Juno's choice is never really explained. The film isn't about whether her pregnancy was right or wrong or if she's making the right choices thereafter. It's really just a story about a girl thrown into an adult world and learning about love.
I really loved the characters in this movie. Each one brings something to the table, and each one has their share of funny one-liners. The movie is chock full of one-liners actually - Juno having the most. Most of her remarks are barbed and sarcastic. She tries to come off as tough and cool. On the inside, Juno is very sweet and can be hurt. Ellen Page does a wonderful job portraying this very complicated young girl.
Bleeker is played by Michael Cera. He's funny and perfect for the role. I imagine Cera is a lot like Bleeker. My only complaint is that he's on-screen for about 10 minutes. When Juno proclaims that he's "totally boss", we really never saw the evidence. The movie is mostly about Juno and the married couple – not about Bleeker.
My favorite character is played by Jennifer Garner, whom I usually don't like. Garner picks very traditional roles and, until this movie, hasn't displayed any acting talent. Sorry, that's harsh – I guess she was good in Dude, Where's my Car?. In Juno, Garner plays Vanessa, a wife longing to be a mother. Vanessa and Mark (Jason Bateman) want to adopt Juno's baby. Vanessa wants to be a mother so badly that she seems crazy at first. Garner does a brilliant job of altering the audience's perspective over time. After a while we start to feel bad for her. There is a very memorable scene where Vanessa tries to feel the baby kicking in Juno's tummy - in the middle of a shopping mall. The act very nearly crosses the line into creepiness, and had a lesser actor been involved it might have been odd. But instead we are given a very beautiful and sweet moment that almost brought me to tears. Almost.
The one little blemish on this picture actually annoyed me quite a bit. Music is a major theme in Juno. Juno and Bleeker share a love of punk rock. However, the soundtrack of the film is mostly folk and, although I hate to use the term, it's very "indie". Juno and Bleeker even sing a cute folk tune together. I think the folk music is perfect for the film, and the quirkiness of it represents the main characters well. I just don't understand why Juno needs to constantly make reference to 80's punk rock. It's so cliché to have a rebellious character enjoy and promote punk rock. Juno even lectures grunge rocker Mark, on how punk is better than grunge. If anything, she should have introduced a more current style of music to Mark, the folksy kind her band plays. I think that would have appropriately followed the generational theme of their scenes together.
Juno is a very good movie. It's sweet but not sappy, hilarious but not gross, and clever but not pretentious. Juno doesn't try to sway your opinion of teenage pregnancy – it's just a really good story.

4 delicious Slurpees


Tideland is a film by Terry Gilliam. I know this because Terry himself opens the movie with a disclaimer. He tells the audience that they will probably not like this movie. Well. Why the hell am I watching it then, Terry? Oh yeah, because you're Terry Gilliam, my third favorite director, and you've never disappointed me. Not even with the Brothers Grimm. Gilliam is also responsible for Twelve Monkeys, Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and of course, all of the Monty Python movies.
Gilliam says that I won't like this movie because it's disturbing. It centers on a little girl who suffers many hardships. She lives in a dump. She has doll-heads for friends. She is ignored by her rock-star parents (except when they need her to prepare their heroin). I'd say that's pretty disturbing. But that didn't bother me. Gilliam's disclaimer should have said, "You won't like this movie because it is very boring."
Of course, there will be people saying that this is a masterpiece. Even I found myself making excuses for him. But it's honestly not Gilliam caliber.
I believe that the point of this film is to show how a little girl escapes her every day problems in a realistic modern way. While there are subtle references to Alice in Wonderland, I wanted this film to be Alice in Wonderland. I wanted the creepy little chick to go Where the Wild Things Are or to the Land of Oz. Gilliam is so great at creating worlds for kids to get lost in and crazy characters to get lost with. Tideland, however, really lacks that kind of imagination. She doesn't go anywhere but the field behind her house. She meets two pointless people (a slow aqua-nut and a bee-fearing ghost-lady) that don't teach her anything or provide any real escape. She plays with one of them, and imagines that the field is an ocean and that a nearby train is a big shark, but otherwise the characters just sort of exist.
I understand that the film is based on a book and that Gilliam chose to stay true to the story. There's just so much potential here; so much room to add that personal touch. The scenery was creepy and the ghost-lady reminded me of a Time Bandits character, but honestly this could have been directed by someone else and I'd never know the difference.
The movie is very gruesome, but like I said, it didn't bother me all that much. If you have a weak stomach I don't suggest watching the movie. One scene involves the taxidermy of a human. My only concern has to do with the production of this movie and its affect on a 10-year-old girl. How do you prevent a child from emotional distress when she is required to act in a scene where drugs and sex are involved? I only hope that the producers considered the girl's well-being. We all see what Full House did to the Olsen twins.
1 severed doll head.

Clerks II

First, let me just say that I am actually a fan of Kevin Smith. I've seen all his movies. I own all his movies (Jersey Girl being the only exception). I know all about the ViewAskewniverse. So that's why it breaks my heart to give Clerks II, ahem, II thumbs down.
The film does approach some issues like ambitions and/or lack thereof, much like Clerks did. But Smith has pretty much replaced the spiteful sarcastic clerks we love, with perverted mockeries of them. It's like watching a film where all the characters are Jay, except for Jay – he's found Jesus.
The film begins during the original Clerks era. Dante and Randall leave the Quick-Stop to work at Mooby's restaurant, a Dogma reference (Love it!). Fast-forward to present day and Dante and Randall are still working at Mooby's. Where sharp-tongued criticism and annoying customers should be, only slightly amusing banter and disgusting jokes remain. One of the most disgusting things I have witnessed in a film appears in this very film. I'll devote an entire paragraph to that later.
The entire Clerks culture has changed in Clerks II. I think that Smith has lost touch with his original point: to make a funny movie based on truth. Rather than sit down and try to write intelligent criticism of small-town America like before, he has traded in his pen for a mad-libs book. (I suppose you still need a pen for mad-libs, but you get my point.) Take a plot we've seen hundreds of times, and insert a few names and dirty words.
The story of Clerks II is nice, but nothing new. Dante is getting married to Emma (played by a talent-less Mrs. Kevin Smith). But does he really love someone else? You got drama! The interesting thing is Randall's concern for his best friend. Even though Randall is fouler here than in the original, he also shows a little more heart. That was nice. I enjoyed that.
But now let me tell you what I did not enjoy.
Although there were some humorous moments, like the Star Wars vs. Lord of the Rings discussion, all the other bits were cheap and so over the top that they weren't funny. Was I really supposed to laugh each time a character said, "Ass to mouth?" There were dirty jokes in the original Clerks, sure, but they were quick and not as forced as they so obviously were here.
Speaking of dirty jokes taken way too far, let's discuss the donkey-sex. Did I miss the humor here? A man has sex with a donkey in a scene that lasts about 20 minutes. I recall something like this happening in the movie Bachelor Party, only it was implied, and the humor was how absurd the bachelor party could get. Obviously, the donkey-sex is simulated in Clerks II, but we are forced to see the facial expressions of the leather-clad donkey-rapist and hear pretty much everything. Not much is left to the imagination, and that's something I never wanted to imagine in the first place. The scene actually scared me. Is rape funny? Is animal abuse funny? It isn't funny; it's disgusting and wrong. Smith is better than this; he's smarter. He shouldn't be resorting to such cheap gross-out humor.
Smith has also left out something I'm surprised more of his fans aren't upset about. Even though this is a direct sequel, rarely is there a connection to his other films. The thing I enjoy most about Kevin Smith is his use of the View Askewniverse. The Askewniverse, named after his production company, is the universe that his stories live in. There are reoccurring characters, themes, and jokes, all centered in New Jersey. Each film references past, and even future films. It's a work of genius as far as I'm concerned. But since Clerks II barely makes a connection to the other films, I have a hard time considering this part of the View Askewniverse. Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee, and Ben Affleck all appear in this movie, but they don't play the characters they played before. I ask, why not? That would have made me laugh, at least three times.
There isn't even one comic book reference! Blasphemy!
Clerks II is pretty disappointing. If you are a fan of Clerks, don't expect to find the same cynicism and intelligence here; there isn't any. If you are a fan of donkey-rape, then maybe this movie is for you. Let's hope the Clerks Animated Movie is better.

1 sad little Mooby


I should probably watch this movie again before I give it a grade, but, I don't feel like it. In fact, my lack of interest in this movie carries a heavy weight. The fact that I enjoy watching movies over and over again should tell you something; something other than me being a big nerd.
Brick is a Fox Focus feature starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as a fast-talking teen on a thrilling mission to find his missing ex-girlfriend. You may not remember him from the hilarious interstellar sitcom Third Rock from the Sun. Levitt was also in 10 Things I Hate about You, a Shakespearean tale for teens.
Brick, is a film-noir for teens. When I was in school, a lot of kids liked to drop the phrase "film-noir" whenever they talked about "film". While the word sounds cool and complicated, it's secretly an easy concept. Picture an old detective movie with guns, classy dames, and cigarettes. The atmosphere is always dark and gritty. There is always high contrast between the dark and light areas on screen – lots of shadows. The overall feeling is bleak and gloomy, and the characters seem lost in their webs of deceit. Those are the basics. Obviously, there is a little more to film-noir than those few things. Otherwise what would film students talk about?
Brick attempts all these aspects and is about half successful. The most obvious noir-ism presented here is the dialogue. In film noir, characters usually talk a certain way. It's overly dramatic, often over-explanatory, and sometimes slang replaces every day words. Brick does a lot of this, especially the slang. It's interesting at first, seeing high school students talk this way. You have to suspend reality a little to believe it, but you already do that with Laguna Beach. Trying to figure out what the Brick characters are saying is kind of fun. But, when you get to hour 2, it's a little trying. Levitt does a wonderful job of acting tough and bleak. He plays a very convincing angst-ridden teen. Levitt would be flawless, if not for the fact that he's so quiet. I believe the problem isn't of audio quality, but that his sentences are just too long and he's required too speak very quickly. As a result, all the slang is meaningless. Most of what Levitt says is plot summary. He's constantly updating the viewer on what he's doing and why. So because he's so quiet, the already confusing plot becomes even less clear.
The atmosphere of film-noir is my favorite aspect. I like how the directors play with shadows to create suspense. The majority of Brick takes place outside in the bright sunlight. The sun is so bright that the scenes are nearly bleached out. Is this a reversal of dark and light - using extreme lighting to replace extreme darkness? Perhaps… but I doubt it. Also, this movie is in color. I would have loved to see it in black and white.
There are two things I really like about Brick – the editing and the action. There is plenty of fist-fighting going on in this movie. Levitt gets knocked down about 20 times (Did someone say drinking game?). The way the fights are edited make them even more entertaining. I won't go as far to say they're Matrix style… but they aren't boring either.
The editing of the entire film is worth noting. There are lots of visually interesting flashbacks and dream sequences. I read somewhere that the editing was done on a personal computer. That's neat.
Overall, Brick is a decent movie. The concept was great - a detective story brought into the high school world. Of course, the story is entirely implausible, but I'm willing to set that aside for entertainment's sake. The action was great, the acting was pretty good, and there were a few funny jokes that made the movie watchable. I couldn't understand the entire plot though, and I still don't really get it. But if you're not willing to press the rewind button every few conversations and/or you're not willing to watch the movie a second time, I wouldn't bother. There are plenty of movies we all need to watch a second time to understand, but for me, Brick isn't one of them.
For a recent film-noir rent The Man Who Wasn't There or Memento.

2 bricks

The Last Kiss

So one day Hollywood said, let there be a movie that resembles an independent film. Let it contain fresh young actors in dramatic poses set to "underground" music. Let it be based on a French film, only let's set it in Wisconsin. Let it be called The Last Kiss. And Hollywood saw that it was good. And so did I… for the most part.
Don't get me wrong. I liked this movie. The story was decent – nothing really brilliant until the very end. The cinematography was decent – a little overdramatic for that "indie" feel. But the reason I liked it, above all else, was the actors' ability to separate themselves from the characters we expect to see. And that's basically what this review will focus on.
We expect to see Zach Braff play someone eccentric. On the show Scrubs, Zach plays a silly, almost inhuman, cartoon character. In his film Garden State (The kind of movie Last Kiss wants to be) he plays the exact opposite - an overly medicated Debbie-downer. But can he play Michael, a normal guy, faced with normal conflicts? Yep, and he plays a pretty convincing one, which says a lot for someone who usually plays on the extreme.
There were several times where I wanted him to react a certain way, to shout or dance around. There were even several times where I wanted him to discuss his feelings in a hilarious internal monologue. But he held true to his character, and throughout the film we often wonder what he is thinking. In fact, there were several times when I shouted, "What are you thinking!?"
Sure, he's not the first actor to pick different roles for protection against typecasting. I'm not praising him on that aspect (although he is doing it early in his career - so kudos for that). I'm praising him because his performance in The Last Kiss is obvious proof of his range. Sometimes playing an average person is the hardest to pull off.
Rachel Bilsson's performance is worth praising as well. Her first lines of dialogue as Kim were a little bit "OC". You know the kind, a little overdone and phony. So at first I was a little disappointed. But as the film progressed, her dialogue became a little less forced and perhaps her character was only trying to impress the lead with her wit. The interesting thing, though, is that her collegiate character is more teen-like than her younger OC character. It would have been very easy to play Kim as she plays Summer on The OC. But where Summer is void of personality and true-age, Kim is the perfect example of a college girl. She's a little bit goofy, she's a little bit shy, she wants to be mature, she wants the older guy to like her, and without giving too much away, she thinks she knows how to get the older guy to like her. I sat down ready to dislike Kim, expecting her to be a deliberate home-wrecker. But she's really not. You truly feel sorry for her. My favorite scene involves a mixed CD, and the scene completely belongs to her. She's just so naive you want to cry.
Other than Zach and Rachel, no one else really shines as much, and there are a lot of actors in this movie. Jacinda Barrett plays Jenna, and she's okay. I can only compare her performance to her work in The Real World and, well, I guess this is better. She cries a lot and makes some interesting grunts, but otherwise her acting is just good, not wonderful.
This large cast I mentioned before is required because of all the side-stories. My guess is that these stories were in the original French film. But even so, they just weren't fleshed out here. I walked away wondering what the point of it all was. Were they added to make the movie longer? Maybe the main story didn't fill the hour and a half time slot. Really, I think that these extra characters and stories were included to contrast Michael's life. Their lives were a little crazy, whereas Michael was bored. Enter Michael's motivation.
Casey Affleck's story is touching, but pointless as far as I'm concerned.
Eric Christian Olsen is funny as Kenny, but again, pointless. In fact, his scenes are quite raunchy and would be better off on the cutting room floor (Maybe they can add them back later for the Uncut DVD release!) They made me feel icky.
The story of Jenna's mother and father, played by Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson, is interesting. And it does tie in with Jenna's motivations. I like that. We often see a woman scorned, and see the standard reaction. Here, the mother's actions have a significant affect on Jenna's behavior.
You do care about the majority of the characters in the film. I related to them and this was do largely in part to the actors, not necessarily the writing. You have to start with a good screenplay and good dialogue obviously, but in this film the actors truly make the characters real and make the movie good.
The soundtrack left much to be desired and I even cringed when I heard Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek." I love her, and I love the song, but enough already. How many times can we use this song whilst pretty actors do something depressing on screen? Coldplay even appears on this soundtrack. Nuff said.
Like I said before this film wants to be another Garden State. Which is fine. But I guarantee you, at some point during the filmmaking, some studio executive saw some dailies and shouted "Oooh! That's so Indie!" And that's lame.

I give it… 3 kisses.


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