Monday, December 31, 2012

Promised Land

Matt Damon and John Krasinski have written an excellent screenplay for "Promised Land" along with Dave Eggars about the impact that big business has on the future of rural America.  Gus Van Sant has beautifully created the vision of Matt Damon and John Krasinski by reminding the audience that two hours outside of any city looks like Kentucky (where Gus Van Sant is from) and accurately sets the tone that the story being told could happen anywhere in America. 

The story begins with Steve (Matt Damon) refreshes himself with clean water on his face before he returns to a business lunch where he is being considered for a VP promotion within the natural-gas company that he represents.  He and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) travel to a rural farming community in Pennsylvania to sell the landowners a future that gives them opportunities that they currently cannot afford.  Whether it be an education for their children or the comfort of knowing what financial security really means. 

What seems like an easy job for the Steve and Sue, given that the community has been hit hard by the economic decline in recent years, becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) with support from a grassroots campaign led by Dustin (John Krasinski) who counters Steve both personally and professionally for the attention of Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) a teacher who returned to the community from the big city after her father passed away so that she could keep the family farm working.

The film tackles the debate about fracking, the controversial drilling technique that has been hailed as an economic boon and reviled as an environmental nightmare.  The film doesn't necessarily portray the controversial drilling technique entirely in a negative way, but instead implores the audience to make a decision for itself.  Both sides of the argument are valid and there isn't a clear right, or wrong, answer.  You can't necessarily say that if you are against fracking that you must be for petroleum, or that if you are farmer that the decision to lease the land is better than the farm subsidies that the government provides for the crops.  Certainly natural gas is a clean energy source to those using it, but the impact on creating it is still not entirely known.  I am not an environmentalist, but I do believe in the individual right to choose and that to properly make the decision requires the appropriate amount of research and information.  Frank Yates, portrayed by Hal Holbrook, is exactly the spirit the movie should inspire.  The information is readily available, and the lure of a quick payday shouldn't be taken lightly. 

I would be shocked if this movie doesn't receive several award nominations.  Among the more likely would be Matt Damon for Best Actor, John Krasinski and Francis McDormand for Best Supporting and a shared Best Screenplay nomination for Matt Damon and John Krasinski.  Gus Van Sant might also deserve some consideration for Best Director of what is easily a Best Film nominee and a 5 Quack film. 

Life of Pi

Being a fan of the book, I was excited to see that Ang Lee was going to direct the film adaptation.  "Life of Pi" is a story of faith that raises complex philosophical and religious questions, while challenging the power of storytelling. 

Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, "Life of Pi" is a magical adventure story centering on Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan as an adult and Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film), the curious son of a zoo keeper. He was born a Hindu and worships Hindu gods, but soon he also embraces Jesus, Mary and Mohammed.  Every week, he worships at the Hindu temple, the Catholic church and the Islamic mosque.  He lives with his family in Pondicherry, India, when his father decides decides to move to Canada, hitching a ride on a huge freighter.  One of the better lines in the film comes as his fathers decision to move the family to Canada saying that it will be like Columbus, to which Pi proclaims that Columbus was looking for India.  Unfortunately, their fate takes a turn for the worse when a horrible storm sinks the boat. 

After the shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, all fighting for survival.  It is here that the movie really takes off and is visually one of the best for the year.  While Pi is on the lifeboat the animals that he encounters are all created digitally through CGI.  While the story that is told by Pi is extravagant it doesn't go without merit.  The “truth” is that Pi survived for 227 days at sea, married the girl of his dreams, had children, and lived to tell about it. 
The film and book ask the audience what do you believe without requiring the reconciliation of the differences between faith interpretations (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam).  Interpretation is subjective but the question is intended to serve as a moment of theological reflection.  Are you a person that prefers to believe in things that always make sense/things that you can see?  Or are you a person that prefers to believe in miracles/take things on faith?  There are no right or wrong answers; just an opportunity for introspection.  I believe that "Life of Pi" is a 5 Quack film and a must read book.  What about you? 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

This is 40

When it comes to the R-rated comedies, there are few better than Judd Appatow in how he writes for the underdog in a way that you really want to pull for them by the end of the film"This is 40" is a look at the lives of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) a few years after the events of "Knocked Up" (2007).

The story starts in the shower as Pete is using a little blue pill to give Debbie a special gift for her 40th birthday but does not want to admit it.  While Pete is also turning 40 around the same time, she refuses to allow any kind of joint birthday party celebration to happen, and still tries to make everyone claim she is 38-years old.  The independent recording label that Pete created in "Knocked Up" is on the verge of bankruptcy and they have missed the mortgage payment on their amazing house because he keeps lending money to his father, Larry (Albert Brooks).  Debbie's business, a clothing boutique, also is having difficulty, because one of her employees (Megan Fox or Charlyne Yi) might be stealing from her.

One glaring omission from the film was that even though the family back story for Debbie was given there was no mention of her sister Alison (Katherine Heigl) from "Knocked Up".  Instead the story introduces John Lithgow as the biological father that Debbie has only seen a couple of times since she was a child.  Additionally, the film is lacking a structure as too frequently it jumps from sequence to sequence just to try for a laugh.  The ultimate conclusion for Pete and Debbie is terrible as they realize that it isn't each other that are causing their unhappiness, but instead everyone else.  It is this shallow revelation combined with the extravagant spending at resorts and catered parties that hurts the film.  I can't help but feel that the film is really just an attempt by Judd Appatow and Leslie Mann to put their children (Maude and Iris) in a movie. 

After reading this review I ask that all of you stop looking at me with those slow blinking eyes.  I know what you are thinking and while this isn't the best film, but it is still entertaining even with its absent minded plot.  The result is a generous 3 Quacks, but I encourage people to look for the DVD in a couple months as I am sure the deleted scenes will be worth the wait. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hobbit

On the heels of the success of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is the first part of "The Hobbit" from Peter Jackson.  While "the Lord of the Rings" was a natural trilogy sourced from three books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, the decision to turn the singular book for "The Hobbit" into three movies is somewhat of a mystery.  The epic nature of the story and the vast vision of Peter Jackson certainly lends itself to expanding the story, but where "The Lord of the Rings" succeeded in telling a story and featured individual performances that stood on their own "The Hobbit" is muddled without a true lead and instead thirteen dwarfs. 

I tend to believe that popular books and movie franchises have two types of fans.  There are the people that read the books and want to see how the film is adapted for the screen; and then there are the people who are fans of the movies who haven't read the books.  I fall in the latter category for the Tolkien franchise and enjoy the adventure that unfolds on the screen for the first time.  Not knowing what will happen next adds another level when the adaptation is done well and treats the source material with the proper respect that Middle Earth deserves. 

The story begins with a reluctant Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is approached by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and then thirteen dwarfs led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).   Bilbo is swept into a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from a dragon named Smaug.  During the journey through Middle Earth the group is confronted by Trolls, Orcs and Goblins while also being assisted by elves which provide familiarity to the previous films with the return of Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).  Bilbo is separated from the group during the battle with the goblins and meets Gollum.  It is here that Bilbo gains possession of Gollum's "precious" ring and the two have a battle of wits by matching riddles (see answers below the trailer) to determine the fate of Bilbo. 

(#1) This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down.   

(#2) Thirty white horses on a red hill, First they champ, Then they stamp, Then they stand still. 

The Hobbit is a very visually impressive film, but what lacks is the lack of a true leading performance.  With thirteen dwarfs in addition to Bilbo and Gandalf it just isn't clear who exactly is the important character to follow.  Is it the Dwarf King Thorin or one of the others that are going to be the most important?  Is it Balin, Dwalin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Nori, Dori or Ori that are the most important.  Most of the actors are relatively unknown with the exception of James Nesbitt, but I may be in the minority on appreciating his previous performances.  I know that Bilbo is supposed to be the lead, but nothing about Martin Freeman's performance really communicates that.

While Peter Jackson works well with CGI there seemed to be something slightly off with the quality in "The Hobbit" as it resulted in an appearance that was similar to what many complain about the "Star Wars" Episode I through III.  This certainly brings the film short of what it could be and by expanding the story to three films results in too much attention given to minor details.  All of this being said the film is still a lot of fun and is easily worthy of 4 Quacks. This film is truly an unexpected journey, and I cannot wait to see the desolation of Smaug in 2013 and then the return back to the Shire in 2014.

Riddle #1: Time
Riddle #2: Teeth

Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained

Django Unchained has every single element of a perfect Quentin Tarantino movie with the added pleasure of being done almost better than he has ever done before.  If you are a fan of Quentin Tarantino then you will love this film.  It has elements from "Pulp Fiction" (1994), "Reservoir Dogs" (1992),  "Inglourious Basterds" (2009) and even "Kill Bill" (2003).  The idea of a spaghetti western (or in this case a southern) is lost to many as the genre is forgotten by Hollywood.  Of course if someone can bring the idea of the grind house back, there is only one person that I would look to for a spaghetti southern. 

Former dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), is working as a bounty hunter when he buys the freedom of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), and trains him to be a bounty hunter as well with a mission.  The doctor gives Django the option of helping him hunt down and kill the Brittle Brothers; a ruthless gang of killers whom he needs Django to recognize for him.  In return, the doctor will free Django from slavery completely and help find and rescue Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the charming but ruthless Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who owns Candyland, a plantation where male slaves are trained to be Mandingo fighters and female slaves are forced into prostitution.

The Quentin Tarantino signature starts with an amazing soundtrack that includes Rick Ross, John Legend and many others.  What has become a signature along with his popularity is the amazing casting, even in the smallest roles.  The Klan leader portrayed by Don Johnson and Jonah Hill was possibly the funniest in the film.  Jamie Foxx is absolutely brilliant as he is more of an action star than ever before with a most amazing shootout where he literally kills all the white people.  Christoph Waltz is just a joy to watch on screen.  He transforms so easily into each of his characters, and delivers his best performance since "Carnage" (2011).  Certainly I realize that was just last year, but I also can't wait to see his upcoming portrayal of Mikhail Gorbachev.  Leonardo DiCaprio has matured into an actor that is so much more enjoyable to watch than when he was a younger.  His performance reminded me of Tom Hanks from "Ladykillers" and was equally despicable. 

For anyone hopingt to watch a film about slavery and have any factual elements, you might want to look to "Roots" instead.  Much like "Inglourious Basterds" had little factual basis for WWII, the revisionist approach used by Quentin Tarantino is for entertainment value only. 

I really enjoyed how the story was told through the fairytale of Brynhildr as only Quentin Tarantino could.  That being said Django Unchained may go down at some point as Tarantino's greatest film, which is why I give it 5 Quacks and expect to see several nominations to come.  In addition to a directing nomination, Quentin Tarantino should also get an original screenplay nod.  The film is rich with characters, and among them the ones that stand out the most are without a doubt Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio for a combination of best actor and supporting nominations.  So go see this movie, but remember that the D is silent hillbilly.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Have you ever sat around with a group of friends and laughed at the classified ads that are in the local paper?  If you lived in the Seattle area in 1997 you might have seen the following ad:

"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."

So if you could go back in time, where would you go, who would you see and why?  For Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a disillusioned college graduate who lives at home with her widower father (Jeff Garlin) and interns at a Seattle magazine, she would like to go back to see her mom. Darius seeks out the source of the classified ad in Ocean View, Washington along with magazine writers, Jeff (Jake Johnson), and Arnau (Karan Soni).  While Jeff just wants to chase after his high school crush and Arnau wants some kind of life experience, Darius spends her time with Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a man who believes that he has built a time machine. The closer they become and the more they understand about each other, the less clear it becomes if Kenneth is just crazy or if he actually is going to successfully travel back in time.

This is a quirky film with actors that excel with being on the fringe.  Aubrey Plaza is one of the best actresses on "Parks and Rec", who with just her eyes is able to deliver so much more.  It one moment you can see her sadness and in another her face brightens with a smile.  Mark Duplass is quickly becoming a favorite of mine, whether it be the slacker in "The League" and "Your Sister's Sister" or as a writer for independent films like "Cyrus" or "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" he is an amazing talent.  Together with Aubrey Plaza they actually make a believable couple that by the end of the film you want to see them succeed. 

A surprise for me was Kristen Bell who plays the mysterious ex-girlfriend of Kenneth and helps to feed the suspicions of Kenneth and challenges the faith of Darius.  A disappointment for me was Jake Johnson, who I haven't quite been able to figure out.  He is funny as the down on his luck roommate in "New Girl", but in this film he is despicable in how he seeks out his high school crush and thinks that because he believes he is successful that he can "save" her and bring her to the city. 

While the film won't be for everyone, it is still enjoyable and if one can look past the slow pace of the film the ending will deliver in a way that you won't entirely expect.  The quirky nature of the film can be funny for some, but the jokes will certainly be missed by others.  Overall, I am glad that I waited to see this on DVD and comfortably recommend it to others as a 3 Quack film

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Contagion is a thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors attempting to deal with the outbreak.  Hasn't this story been played out by now, or is their really need for another film about a deadly virus.  Director Steven Soderburgh does what he usually does by overcasting the film with high profile celebrities hoping to compensate for a lacking script from Scott Burns. 

Soon after her return from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff (Gwenneth Paltrow) dies from an unknown virus, shortly followed by her young son later the same day.  Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) however seems immune.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) and the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) work to identify the virus and to develop a vaccine as the contagion spreads to millions of people worldwide.  The story addresses how an epidemic impacts various individuals from civilians to the government and how the society order will break when people begin to panic. The lack of communicating details by the government leads a blogger (Jude Law) to come at odds with the government over the truth. 

None of the individual performances stand out, but the cinematography captures the international perspective of the film.  Perhaps it was the scientific method of explaining how a virus works that lost my attention.  Additionally the blogger concept never seemed to fit as there was only claims of having 12 million followers of the blog, but not real impact recognized.  His message is ominous and seems more like a political message being delivered by Steven Soderburgh.  There may be some truth to the corporate and political implications, but if that was the point of including the blog story in the film it missed for me. 

The result of the film is that the audience will likely be overly aware of people coughing on public transportation and the overuse of hand sanitizer.  The film does a better job than the previous outbreak films, but nothing stands out.  Steven Soderburgh does well with ensemble casts as he has done with "Ocean's Eleven" and other films.  Each of the high profile actors in the film get their moment, but the lack of character development prevents the film from taking any larger level of appreciation and is why it is a 3 Quack film and I will wash my hands and use hand sanitizer more (I promise).

The Conspirator

The popularity of the 16th President of the United States of America in the 21st Century is only equaled to the 19th Century.  For anyone that enjoyed Steven Spielberg's epic "Lincoln" (2012) the events that took place afterward are told by Robert Redford in the film "The Conspirator" (2011). 

It is commonly known that John Wilkes Booth shot and killed the President, but what isn't widely known is the individuals that were charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kobbell) and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is a Civil War veteran and a lawyer that is asked to defend Mary Surratt before a military tribunal.  As the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son. 

The story itself is intriguing, but the casting was even more impressive.  Kevin Kline is almost villainous as War Secretary Edwin Stanton that declares he doesn't care which is convicted (Mary Surratt or her son) as long as one of them pays the price.  Tom Wilkinson is Senator Reverdy Johnson who hand picks Frederick Aiken for the trial.  The innocence that comes so natural to Evan Rachel Wood is what shines as the daughter, Anna Surratt.  Another regular from "True Blood" is Chris Bauer who takes the witness stand along with Stephen Root and several others.  Danny Huston is the opposing lawyer while Colm Meaney leads the military tribunal. 

The biggest failure of the film is the personal life of Frederick Aiken as the performances from Alexis Bledel and Justin Long as his close friends.  The script from James Solomon works with his strengths of writing a legal drama.  While I understand that the inclusion of the secondary story was needed to help show the difficulties Frederick Aiken was emotionally dealing with; the acting from Alexis Bledel and Justin Long fell short resulting from a lack of chemistry.  Justin Long attempted to bring humor at times that wasn't necessary while Alexis Bledel in my opinion can't act. 

The ensemble casting of the film may be one of the best in years.  While the film is best categorized by the sum of its parts being better than the hole, it is never the less a film that is absolutely worth seeing as a 3 Quack film.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsmen

"Snow White and the Huntsman" should be a better film than it is.  Instead it feels like a film that was made for the SciFi channel, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as I very much enjoyed their take on the 2007 Wizard of Oz story with "Tin Man".

The film falls in line with some of the other recent adaptations of the classic fairytale stories (e.g. "Red Riding Hood") where a darker approach to telling the well known story is used.  While I am not completely against the approach, the story needs to have more substance to fall back on and less of a visual spectacle to carry the film.  I was almost expecting Arnold Schwartzineiger to be the magical mirror that comes into a human form out of the liquid metal.  Or that an R.O.U.S. would attack Snow White and the Huntsman in the Dark Forest, or was it the Fire Swamp from "Princess Bride".

The main story is familiar as Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is opposed by the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and is being hunted by The Huntsmen (Chris Hemsworth).  The script is lacking and the acting suffers as a result.  But then again many of the target audience isn't going for acting.  The most impressive sequence of the film is when Snow White and the Huntsman meet the seven dwarfs.  While the names of the dwarfs are not the familiar names from Disney, they are also not portrayed by actual dwarfs, but instead continue the incredible casting of the film by including the talents of Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Bob Hoskins, Brian Gleeson, Eddie Marsan and Ian McShane.  They perhaps have the best writing and with the talent deliver on a much wider scale.

The film is truly a waste of its potential and only magnifies the brilliance of "Once Upon a Time" on ABC.  Updating a known story isn't difficult, and even incorporating stylized special effects can be done well, but "Snow White and the Huntsmen" just isn't where it will be found and neither was "Mirror Mirror".  For a dramatic film the audience shouldn't be laughing at the attempts to update the story.  The film is what it is and it is a 2 Quack film.  

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