Duke & The Movies

Film Criticism


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Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is unequivocally the most dissimilar Quentin Tarantino film that he has directed to date. Which is perhaps why it’s one of his best.

As opposed to the non-linear narratives of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown’s story relies not on its glossy aesthetics or visual flare, but on the pure storytelling of the director at the helm.

What does stay in the tradition of a Tarantino movie is the complexity of the plot.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a foxy flight attendant that gets arrested by a couple of ATF agents (played by Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen) catching her smuggling money and cocaine from Cabo to America.

But the two agents aren’t primarily after her, they want the source of the currency and narcotics: in particular an illegal arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson).

By arresting Brown in the beginning of the film, Tarantino effectively lays out his narrative. The ATF agents make a deal with Jackie to work for the Government, by going undercover and completing one more deal where they’ll be able to arrest Ordell and his accomplices.

This catapults Brown to numerous people and places: in order to release her from jail, Ordell has to pay bail. Accordingly, he goes to a bails bondsmen name Max Cherry (Robert Forester) who understands Ordell’s conspicuous business, but doesn’t ask questions.

The nuance in characterization doesn’t end there. Naturally Cherry must go to the prison to pick up Brown. He’s inexplicably instantly romantically drawn to her – Bloodstone’s Natural High plays in the background as she walks up, it’s a wonderful and pure moment of film.

Robert De Niro (left) and Samuel L. Jackson (right) discussing serious illegal matters in "Jackie Brown".

To add to the mix of characters is Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a bank robber who recently finished a 4-year bid in jail for (who would’ve guessed) robbing a bank. Gara is a seemingly subtle guy, but ends up having a hot temper. He assists Ordell in his illegal scheming.

With all the pieces of the puzzle in place, Tarantino reveals the crux of the crime: Ordell has a half million dollars in Cabo, but the only way for him to obtain the money is for Jackie to go over the border and smuggle it back to U.S. soil.

The 500,000 dollars acts as a springboard for personal motivations from all parties involved: the question is, who will survive when it’s all over? And most importantly, whose lap will the money fall into at the end of the day?

Jackie has many facets to her personality, and acts accordingly with whom ever she’s with: honest to Cherry, serious to the ATF, and sassy, strong-willed with Ordell. What most of the characters don’t know is the elaborate façade she’s putting up on all fronts.

That is, with the exception of Cherry – who is really the character we the audience can identify with, and look to for moral guidance. He’s sympathetic towards Brown, who confides to him that she’s been stuck in this dirty business for so long she can hardly tell right from wrong.

Ordell (left) and Jackie (right) are actively arguing over miscommunication in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown"

Brown and Cherry’s relationship – which operates romantically and cinematically – is the one aspect of the film worth caring for. Everyone else acts with little integrity: there truly isn’t a character (again with the exception of Cherry) that isn’t looking out for him or herself.

In some sort of homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Jackie Brown isn’t your run-of-the-mill crime caper. This is a different breed of filmmaking where the characters have intelligence, and where spewing out forced exposition and lousy clichés to move along the narrative, is a thing of the past.

The construction of the climatic scene (in which perspectives of each character apart of the half million dollar pick up at the mall, are shown) reveals the prowess and ingenuity behind Jackie Brown.

Tarantino is more restraint here (likely because he’s adapting from an American novel by Elmore Leonard), thus making his execution tougher and grittier than anything he’s produced prior.

For once in Tarantino’s oeuvre, he’s made a film that’s more about substance than style.

In fact, Jackie Brown may just be his masterpiece.

Rating: ★★★★

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown (1997)

Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino, Elmore Leonard

Runtime: 154 minutes

Genre: thriller, drama, crime

Trailer Jackie Brown

Page One: Inside the New York Times

*Now streaming on Netflix Instant, this is a quick review.

The irony is brilliant. What I’m doing right now is often considered by the “print media” the reason the once lucrative newspaper business is slowly depleting. I have troves of respected for print – albeit their recent amount of glaring journalistic faults.

Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times is a powerful and precise expose on the framework behind the newspaper industry. Rossi does this by documenting a year inside the most prestigious and well regard paper in the country, The New York Times.

Coinciding with the industry they’re dwelling into, Page One is a fast-paced, efficient, and taut look at media and the inevitable future of journalism.

Many say that The New York Times will cease to exist in next decade. I’ll state not as an opinion, but rather a fact, that it won’t. And if by some bizarre chance it does, it will always be remembered as the paper that consistently worked diligently and adequately to serve the common people.

Page One: Inside the New York Times encapsulates – with great prowess – an industry that is currently fragile, but never-the-less a necessity in all echoes and eras of life.

Chalk Mr. Rossi’s exquisite documentary as one of the most intriguing pictures of the year.

Rating: ★★★½

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011)


Director: Andrew Rossi

Writer: Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi

Runtime: 100 minutes

Genre: documentary


After striking gold with Clerks in 1994, Mallrats is an affable follow up picture that explores what Kevin Smith knows best: the relationships between protagonists who are far too infatuated with self serving hobbies, rather than long lasting matters.

As per usual, the story – written by Smith – is sharp and untimely philosophical. This time around we follow two college students named Brodie (Jason Lee) and T.S. – who, both coincidentally just got dumped by their respective girlfriends.

You know the drill in Smith movies by now: Brodie and T.S. are both verbose underachievers who contain languid generalizations and make hilarious social commentary on everyone and everything. But with their girlfriends pushing them off to the sidelines, they must find a way to swoon them back into their arms.

To no surprise, all of the witty banter and wild attempts to win the females back takes place (as the title suggests) in a mall.

Smith fills the ecstatic shopping center with some typical and not some typical sub-characters. Jay and Silent Bob make their mighty return – a devious security guard who reprehends those attempting to break the rules – a trashy worker who just can’t seem to find the sailboat in this 3D picture (think Mr. Pitt in Seinfeld) – Tricia a 15 year old senior in high school who has already received $20,000 from Pendant Publishing to write a book on sexual patterns and Ben Affleck who plays (what a surprise) a cocky, testosterone driven salesman who’s headset on having sexual intercourse with Brodie’s ex-girlfriend – all play apart in Mallrats wacky, though helplessly enjoyable story.

Thankfully, the females (as opposed to some of Smith’s other pictures) are great fun. Shannen Doherty as Rene (the ex of Brodie) and Claire Forlani as Brandi (the ex of T.S.) are yes, both immensely attractive individuals – but also are fascinating in terms of their equal, though different resistance towards their ex boyfriends. The hostility and curiosity add an unexpected element of surprise to the film.

There’s not much nuance here – especially if you’re familiar with Smith’s oeuvre. The problems with picture are familiar as well. Though the philosophical anecdotes are periodically enjoyable, they often are penned and placed in forced situations. And speaking of forced, the whole haphazard plot is consistently contrived.

It also runs about 10 minutes long and contains a climatic sequence that needed to be trimmed. Aside from some glaring faults, though, it’s worthwhile.

Mallrats is a nice mix of romance, humor, and narcissistic wit. And even if the outcome of the characters is entirely predictable, you’ll be smiling by the closing credits.

Rating: ★★½☆


Mallrats (1995)

Cast: Shannen Doherty, Jeremy London, Jason Lee

Director: Kevin Smith

Writer: Kevin Smith

Runtime: 94 minutes

Genre: comedy

Life In A Day

Undoubtedly one of the more ambitious documentaries I’ve seen in quite some time, Life in a Day follows the global life of July 24th, 2010.

How is this done?

A few months prior to the films construction, producers Tony and Ridley Scott asked anyone and everyone to document their day on the 24th of July – send it in and contribute to this once in a lifetime feature.

While there’s no denying the ambition, one must applaud the editors of the film. Condensed from 4,500 hours of archival footage – from 192 countries around the world – Life in a Day is a mere 95 minutes. Which unfortunately, still fells too long.

Though with very little narrative, the film attempts to create some arch of storytelling by asking three poignant questions to all those participating:

What’s in your pocket?
What do you love the most?
What do you fear?

These are all reasonable questions that can be answered by anyone – regardless of cultural bearings or economic status. The responses to these thoughtful inquisitions alternate from person to person. Some have nothing in their pocket. Some love their car the most. Some fear nothing. Some fear insects. The wide array of responses is an allegory to how unique we all are from one another.

On a personal level the film attempts to capture what I often think about: at this moment, what is someone else doing with his or her life. It astonishes me that even while I cobble together my thoughts and words onto this page, someone else in the world is fighting in a war, eating cereal for breakfast, sitting in their car listening to radio, searching and begging for food, and so on and so forth. There’re moments of curiosity in the documentary that spark a fuse – pity it’s burned out by the end.

The ambition of the project ultimately overrides the execution. Life in a Day never seizes to be fascinating, but its mixed tones, messages, and narrative never gel into anything worth recounting or remembering. It’s more of an experiment than a final product.

Rating: ★★☆☆

Life in a Day

Life in a Day (2011)

Cast: Cindy Baer, Moica, Hiroaki Aikawa

Director: Joaquin Montalvan, Natalia Andreadis


Runtime: 95 minutes

Genre: drama, documentary

Half Nelson

Dan Dunne asks a question of himself many people often have: What’s our purpose on Earth? He doesn’t know. Neither do most of us.

Dunne (played exceptionally by Ryan Gosling) is a public school teacher battling a drug addiction he just can’t seem to shake off. He teaches history – which he calls the documentation of “change” – something he’s, perhaps, incapable of himself.

An untimely friendship emerges when Drey (Shareeka Epps), Dunne’s student, catches her teacher in the act of his habit. With a father in a jail, a police officer of a mother, and dealing with a drug dealer (Anthony Mackie) who owes the family a social debt, Drey is in desperate need of guidance. Evidently, so is Dan.

It’s an offbeat relationship, not to mention an illegal one. Yet, there’s such sincerity between the two that you accept it. Unfortunately, Dan is no ideal role model. He continues to wallow in narcotics, simultaneously teaching students to stay moral. He’s a walking hypocrite – but at least he tries.

Every relationship (even with Drey for a short period of time) Dan has falls apart. His parents are only marginally concerned – constantly giving off this vibe like they know he’s a lost cause. The females in his life love him, but he pushes them aside. After awhile, even the ones who unconditionally love you eventually have to move on.

Half Nelson takes attentive viewing. The themes are neither painted in black and white, nor are director-writer Ryan Fleck’s ideas. It’s challenging and thought-provoking film, all the while containing a human quality that makes these characters identifiable.

Dan is a mess, there’s no hiding it. But he feels, even at his lowest point of addiction that he has an obligation to help others and as a teacher and a human, he can make a difference in society. In a perfect world, everyone who needs caring would get taken care of. Sadly, the world isn’t perfect. Dunne poignantly observes this. To paraphrase, he notes that if he can just make a change in one person’s life, he’s done something of purpose.

The affect is in somewhat reverse. Drey – though clearly in need of some help – is far more well off than Dan. The student assists the teacher for a change, which leads to honest, touching and gripping conversations between teacher and student.

With such subtle storytelling, Fleck takes an evocative snapshot of a man nearly drowning in sorrow and sadness. This is reality not to be taken lightly. If the film appears to lose its course from time to time, keep in mind that the story reflects the mind of our drugged-up protagonist.

Half Nelson refers to a wrestling hold, something one can escape from with cleverness and dedication. Naturally, the title becomes a metaphor for Dan’s subsequent struggle – emotionally, physically, and mentally. But, there’s a sign of hope – a small glimmering light of optimism – and from a second chance, is the opportunity to start over. The opportunity of reinvention is something not everyone receives in this lifetime. So cherish it if you are fortunate and lets just hope Dan, at last, seizes his moment of change.

Rating: ★★★½

Half Nelson

Half Nelson (2006)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Jeff Lima, Shareeka Epps

Director: Ryan Fleck

Writer: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Runtime: 106 minutes

Genre: drama

Trailer Half Nelson

About Schmidt

Directed with sardonic wit by Alexander Payne (Sideways and Election) About Schmidt follows the title character, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson).

After early retirement from a prominent insurance job and his wife, Helen (June Squibb), subsequently dying – Warren embarks on a road trip to discover himself and his purpose on this planet. The end goal is beyond evidence of meaning, but the wedding of his beautiful, self-righteous daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis).

The film proceeds like most road trips proceed, albeit the drugs, thankless women, and crass antics. Schmidt, while not struggling over his plethora of issues, attempts to find configuration in his disorganized life. While all this transpires, the one person Warren does speak to , is Ndugu, a 6-year-old Tanzanian child he’s “adopted” over a Television add.

It’s quite sad, though. In most of Schmidt’s hand-written letters, he so scarcely acknowledges Ndugu and the constant hardships he must be going through. Instead, we here complaint after complaint from Warren and how without Helen, his life is in dismay.

There’s a valuable lesson learned through his excessive letters. Beyond being open with people, a commodity lost in modern society, you must attempt to value the things you have in life. Because, as the saying goes, you never really appreciate something until it’s gone.

In Schmidt’s case, it was his loving wife Helen that he undervalued. Sure, after 42 years of marriage her idiosyncrasies and flaws become more apparent, morphing into nuisances.

I’m not one to preach, considering my lack of personal experience in marriage. But, it is under my philosophy that if you can find someone who can tolerate you for 42 years – they must be doing something right.

It doesn’t surprise me that About Schmidt comes from Payne. Like a majority of his endeavors, the film leaps into ideas and themes of infidelity, loss, mortality, and deceit.

Warren Schmidt celebrating his retirement at a group dinner in "About Schmidt"

However, while similar topics from past directorial efforts occur here, the film is, more or less, invaluable. There’re poignant questions being asked by our protagonist, Warren. While we contemplate the inquisitions, it bares no significance to the film at hand.

Nicholson does what he can with the tiresome material. But the script is lacking depth and dynamics. The humor is scarce and the writing is ponderous in the existential.

Perhaps rightfully so, there are no signs of hope within the films 125 minute run-time. We are born. We live. We work. We reproduce. And then, we die. The mind of a cynic is simply not interesting for two hours.

While the performances are engrossing, the characters are mostly vapid. About Schmidt acceptingly wallows in its own sadness and delivers no other signs of life.

That’s not say we need to be reassured with happiness and optimism, but for a film that prides itself on self-discovery, Warren does very little soul-searching. Which, at the end of the day begs the question: Maybe he really hasn’t contributed to society. What a saddening realization.

Rating: ★★☆☆

About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002)

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis

Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor

Runtime: 125 minutes

Genre: comedy, drama

Trailer About Schmidt


October 13, 2011 | 18 comments | classic, Featured, Old Format


“You don’t want to be trapped inside with me sunshine. Inside, I’m somebody nobody wants to fuck with do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson, I am Britain’s most violent prisoner.”

Bronson has few redeeming qualities, only occasionally piquing our interest when the protagonist brutally beats the living daylights of prison guards and everyone else he comes into contact with. But even that clearly insane brutality gets old fast.

Directed with a certain grim style by Nicolas Winding Refn (the man responsible for the brilliant, Drive), the film follows Michael Peterson, a vicious, psychotic and evil man who adopts the name Charles Bronson. As his countless stints in jail pile up, he gains an infamous reputation, ultimately called Britain’s most violent prisoner. Now there’s a title to be proud of.

What at first makes Bronson such a provocative effort, aside from the fact that it’s based on a true story, is that we witness a man who enjoys beating other people and in turn getting beaten. He’s masochistic. Charles is a troubled soul, filled with anger and lust.

From time to time, we see Charles’s true emotions: Particularly the scenes interwoven in a documentary style in which he attempts to tell his story, battle his own personal issues, and occasionally make a joke. There’s a fantastic scene in which he has a conversation with himself, with paint on one side and his standard face on the other. It’s a touching moment – pity for the obnoxious scenes that ensue.

In the past decade, however, there has been an abundance of praise for Bronson and Tom Hardy’s performance. The craft alone is worth admiring. But I don’t call it a great performance. Daring, sure. Because even though Hardy goes all out and plays his character with no limitations, it still comes off as redundant.

Bronson knocking out another person! What a new concept!

The fault could go to middling script, rather than the actor. Peterson just isn’t an interesting charaacter. He has no morals or ethics, and basically stays the same person throughout the movie.

Bronson has more shortcomings than just the central character. Refn fills his film with beautiful cinematography and evocative camerawork. In Drive, this auteur technique was mesmerizing. In Bronson it’s distracting. The jaw-dropping imagery, juxtaposed with a hyper-kinetic score, doesn’t match the brutish tone of the film or our protagonist. All of Bronson’s chaotic storytelling just add up to pointless brawls and a plethora of tracking shots, narrowing in on Hardy’s naked body and his Bucky Larson-size penis.

While one cannot blame Bronson for being obscure, it certainly doesn’t help that Refn’s narrative is cobbled together with little coherency. If the endeavor is style over substance, the movie fails, miserably. If the film is supposed to be a docudrama, it only partially succeeds. Bronson may be an honest retelling of Michael Peterson’s life, but it’s simply not interesting for an hour and half.

As a piece of art, Bronson mirrors our protagonist in every conceivable way: Neither contributes to society.

This review is part of the LAMB: Movie of the Month

Rating: ★☆☆☆


Bronson (2009)

Cast: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn, Brock Norman Brock

Runtime: 92 minutes

Genre: thriller, drama, biography

Trailer Bronson


Being new to famed cult director David Cronenberg, I entered his revered 1983 film Videodrome with an open mind. I mention this because it’s rare that one goes into a film knowing next to nothing about the movie or having no prior feelings towards the filmography of a filmmaker.

But I digress.

Videodrome is one unique piece of cinema. The first 45 minutes of Cronenberg’s sci-fi noir is a slow-burn thriller, moving at a fluid pace and generating the interest of the viewer every single second. Then it morphs from a taut, divisive critical piece on modern culture and television to an unexplainable action, mystifying direction and a bizarre and perplexing conclusion.

Starring James Woods in the lead role, Videodrome follows Max Renn, a sleazy cable-TV executive looking for the next explicit show that will make his station money.

His dream comes true when one day under a pirate satellite signal, Renn stumbles upon a program called Videodrome. The show’s appeal is that it’s real and uncensored. It consists of brutal beatings, pornography, and graphic imagery, not easy on the eyes, but ultimately addicting to viewers.

The mystery begins once Max first indulges in Videdrome. The show creates visions that may lead to a brain tumor or what the film calls “uncontrollable flesh.” Basically your mind becomes sporadically useful, ultimately causing your life to be a total hallucination.

Ed Woods and Deborah Harry star in David Cronenberg's "Videodrome"

As we embark on the dark journey with Max, we start to uncover the philosophy behind Cronenberg’s madness. We are to believe that the video screen is part of the human mind – finally coming to a conclusion that television is reality and reality is less than television.

My thought on both the philosophy and the film is that even in the year 2011, Videodrome was miles ahead of its time. The ideas expressed here are so revelatory it gives the viewer something to contemplate far after the credits start rolling.

Yes, the film doesn’t come full circle. It doesn’t need to. Cronenberg, from the opening scenes, establishes his eerie tone and goes all in. Videodrome is a beautiful mess of a film as it morphs from haunting to silly within an instant. It’s also uneven and ponderous, but I was engrossed with what I was seeing on screen.

I suppose it comes down to whether or not you’ll be repulsed or entranced with Cronenberg’s twisted, psychotic little picture. Count me entranced.

Rating: ★★★☆


Videodrome (1983)

Cast: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Runtime: 87 minutes

Genre: thriller, sf, mystery


In Ceremony, a sporadically nuanced spin on an old tale, director Max Winkler hones three different characters on screen: a realist, an idealist, and a romantic. How the three caricatures mold together is irrelevant, it makes for some initial diversity in standard romanticized filmmaking.

What proceeds is not a miscalculation, but simple underdevelopment. A standard mistake for freshman directors comes from their technique. In Ceremony’s opening 30 minutes, we see fresh, exuberant material come to life – but Winkler’s flaw is to settle for the ordinary.

The ordinary nature entails a plethora of characters used merely as a stepping-stone to advance the plot and pseudo charming scenes we’ve seen many times before in films far better than this one.

Our story follows Sam Davis (Michael Angarano), a well intentioned, though selfish aspiring children books writer who promises his best friend Marshall (Reece Thompson) a nice, relaxing getaway weekend.

However, Sam has a bit of a hidden agenda: The destination for the weekend is a miniature castle where Zoe is planning to get married. Zoe, played by Uma Thurman, is a beautiful and elegant older woman who met Sam in New York. Since meeting the two have been in constant contact, becoming pen pals and morphing into star-cross lovers. Unfortunately, like all fantasized relationships, they’re doomed by limitations and circumstances.

The key elements that prove problematic for the two’s romance is age and security. Neither of which Sam can match when stacked up against Whit Coutell (Lee Pace), the man Zoe is set to marry.

Pace’s character is undoubtedly one of the weakest in the film. He’s the stereotypical arrogant and successful husband who clearly isn’t right for Zoe. Thurman demonstrates the same kind of sexiness and intensity she played in Prime – occasionally giving into the desires of Sam – but mostly perplexed with her situation and her desires.

Then there’s Sam. Witty, fast-talking, annoying, and occasionally charming, the character is a mixed bag. So is actor Michael Angarano, stepping into the leading role. Both the character and actor show signs of competency and effort – which ultimately is what makes up for Sam’s degenerate selfishness.

What brought a smile to my face was that Ceremony is, more than less, grounded in reality. Sure, contrivances come in spades – particularly in the films middling third act – but Winkler has infused his film with melancholy and optimism, two honest conflictions that occur in life.

Zoe and Sam’s romance isn’t groundbreaking, nor is the film. But Ceremony ends on the right note, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and provides the viewer some genuine insight into why sometimes security in relationships trumps our own personal desires.

Rating: ★★½☆


Ceremony (2010)

Cast: Uma Thurman, Lee Pace, Michael Angarano

Director: Max Winkler

Writer: Max Winkler

Runtime: 89 minutes

Genre: comedy

Trailer Ceremony

Dazed and Confused

* Note: This film is part of the 365 film guide I’m completing – the full list is on the tab bar above.

Foghat plays seamlessly in the background. Happiness is the emotion in the air. It’s the start of summer and for the soon to be seniors, the beginning of the end. In the meantime, though – while their worries are put at ease – they’re going to spend a night downing beers, casually smoking marijuana, and embracing every second of their fading High school lives.

Directed by Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused is set in the bicentennial year of 1976. It follows, with mere aimless direction, incoming freshmen and upcoming seniors on the final day of school and the start of summer vacation. Nothing resembling of a standard plot is evident. But that’s all right.

Everyone drives around, comforted by the freedom and boredom. It’s odd how Linklater’s jaunty stoner-comedy embodies a time frame that still remains true today. Teens still smoke as if it’s a religious act – and drive with no plans, no directions, and nowhere to be.

Release in the year of 1993, Dazed and Confused introduced us to many now big named actors. Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, and Adam Goldberg are all apart of the senior class, battling the future and accepting the reality.

Coincidentally the film came out 20 years after George Lucas’s American Graffiti – a far superior film that delves into the same type of storyline with far more definition and honesty. Linklater’s attention consistently wanes from character to character. We don’t get to know or care for anyone on screen (with the exception of Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd) amounting, unfortunately, to just a lot of people spouting off comedic anecdotes and prolonged blabber.

Despite the directorial flaws, Ben Affleck, Jason London, and Michelle Burk are all phenomenal. The three talents make each of their respective characters honest human beings, while still delivering on a comedic front.

Though clearly flawed and unusual sluggish for the opening 45 minutes, Dazed and Confused is an enjoyable comedy – but not by any lengths a classic one. It could be that I’ve seen too many great films set in high school, exploring the spirit and ambitions of an adolescent, that I can’t quite appreciate Linklater’s derivative script. For me, though, it’s the sprawling mass of characters that ultimately morphs into the films final demise.

At least by nights fall Dazed and Confused is subtly optimistic: something we all need to be from time to time.

Rating: ★★½☆

Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Cast: Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Wiley Wiggins

Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater

Runtime: 102 minutes

Genre: drama, comedy

This Is Spinal Tap

*Note: This film is part of the 365 film guide I’m completing – the full list is on the tab bar above.

Since This Is Spinal Tap’s 1984 release is has become widely regarded as the pinnacle for mock-documentaries (a rockumentary in other terms). The device used here is satire, poking fun at the legitimate documentaries focused on prolific bands and musicians of the time.

While some of director Rob Reiner’s material hits the mark, the film ends up dangling, as one of the band members’ states, “a fine line between stupid and clever” – ultimately morphing into a drastically uneven, sporadically funny, and redundantly plotted mess.

Initially Reiner intrigues us with his sarcastic trickery, reminiscing over the bands hay day and now deciding to do a follow up piece on the seemingly fading musicians. The hooligan band is called Spinal Tap: based out of England they are considered to be the loudest band across the globe. Using the laudatory style, Reiner (playing the director of the film Marti DeBergi) tracks the musicians through their ups and downs, lackluster concerts, and personal conflicts within each member.

Moments of pure comic genius save This Is Spinal Tap from being a complete derivative time-waster. Personally, I just never bought into the bands sheer existence. Many of the bands problems, though played through hilarity, feel contrived and used to move along the ridiculous plot.

Perhaps my largest gripe with the film, though, is the amount of both unnecessary and poorly constructed concert scenes. I couldn’t quite figure out what Reiner was attempting to accomplish – they weren’t funny, they weren’t satirical, and they sure as hell weren’t filled with any quality music.

On the up side, the actors (particularly Michael McKean and Christopher Guest) do a solid job submerging themselves into the roles – nearly convincing us that Spinal Tap is a genuine rock and roll band.

Despite my lukewarm reaction to the film, This Is Spinal Tap will forever be a cult classic – its uniqueness and over-the-top nature appeals to many audiences still today. And while I enjoyed spurts of the picture, the final product comes off as merely a grand, exploitative and meandering experiment.

I will say this, the scene where the band performs their “Stonehenge” act with “dwarfs” running around, had me laughing for a good ten minutes. The credits, too, are fantastic – making you long for the entire film to be as funny.

Pity it falls flat.

Rating: ★★☆☆

This Is Spinal Tap

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Cast: Rob Reiner, Kimberly Stringer, Chazz Dominguez

Director: Rob Reiner

Writer: Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer

Runtime: 82 minutes

Genre: music, comedy

Shades of Ray

September 6, 2011 | No comments | classic, Old Format

Shades of Ray

I’m always fascinated with indie-darling romantic tales, wistfully chipping away at honest portrayals of relationships with vulnerable characters. Perhaps its because we’re apart of a generation, fascinated with watching and examining human life. A rational explanation, I reckon, is not to be obtained anytime soon.

Shades of Ray, while attempting everything I mentioned prior, fails in the long run to be a genuine account of matrimony, seduction, and cultural traditions – and ends up being a fairly ordinary, Hollywood-esque clichéd romp.

Written by Jaffar Mahmood, the film follows American-born Ray Rehman: a bartender/aspiring actor who recently asked the woman of his dreams (Bonnie Somerville’s Noel Wilson) to marry him. She leaves the country without answering; telling Ray that she’ll have a response soon.

Unsatisfied, distraught, and perplexed Ray finds himself in a slump – even more so when he finds his Pakistani father (Javaid Rehman played by Brian George) on his doorstep one evening. The reason? Dad’s Caucasian mother threw him out after one too many quibbles.

So the story digresses: Ray can’t understand why Noel isn’t set on marriage or why his Dad can’t work things out with his loving mother. To complicate matters, Javaid begins to play matchmaker, forcing Ray to meet an idealistic and gorgeous woman by the name of Sana Khaliq (Sarah Shani). The two are made for each other: both subtle, naïve – though kind figures and above all, both characters are half Caucasian and half Pakistani.

The latter similarities of racial and cultural background prove to be the driving force in the picture. Ray, since he was a child, feels he’s had to adapt to American ideals and its lifestyle. Sana is the same, changing herself, being oblivious and ignoring where she came from to avoid ridicule from others.

Shades of Ray’s ho-hum, self-loathing song and dance gets old, fast. The interracial stereotypes feel dated (even though film was made in 2008), irrelevant, and forced. Yes, the two I’m sure had some adjusting to do growing up in America – but the Pakistan people weren’t treated with as much hostility as say, African Americans or the Jewish people in Germany with Hitler’s dictatorship and episodic mass destruction.

Jaffar Mahmood’s directorial style blows every tidbit of the film out of proportion. Family ties, involving emotions of confusion and anger, are standard practices in cinema. However, there are subtler, more genuine ways to show us conflict than having an unusually stubborn father or an unbearable amount of contrived, ridiculous, and self-empathizing dialogue about “fitting in” and finding the one that truly “gets” you. Spare the disingenuous saccharine and pseudo relationships, and offer up at least some spectacle of reality.

Shades of Ray has some biting bittersweet moments in it and a couple of compelling leading performances from Zachary Levi and Sarah Shani, but the film lacks any sort of cohesive or most importantly, significant story.

Rating: ★½☆☆

Shades of Ray

Shades of Ray (2008)

Cast: Zachary Levi, Fran Kranz, Sarah Shahi

Director: Jaffar Mahmood

Writer: Jaffar Mahmood

Runtime: n/a

Genre: romance, drama, comedy

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

George Roy Hill’s visionary and electrifyingly jaunty 1969 classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, may just contain the best on screen duo I’ve ever seen. Yep, it’s Paul Newman and Robert Redford, stealing, gun slinging, and reinventing the tiresome Western genre every second of the film’s 110 minute runtime.

The story follows two bandits, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who’ve outlived their prime and are on their last leg evading and escaping from police authorities. Their shortcomings are never more evident than when a standard operation of robbing a train goes array: compelling the two to flee, and ultimately end up (after a long road trip in and out of the West) in Bolivia.

Written by William Goldman, the characterization here isn’t all too complex. Butch is the brain, Sundance is the gunslinger, and Katharine Ross’ Etta Place is the love interest, who decides to embark on this wild, daring adventure to Bolivia.

So, what makes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stand out amongst the Western genre? Perhaps the fact that it isn’t your standard, shoot-em-up, lone ranger, new town, type of western where the action pieces are disingenuous and the characters far too stoic for their own good. Goldman’s script allows each and every role to be nuanced, dramatic and downright hilarious.

The film takes itself seriously, but never to a point where anything feels overwrought or dramatized – and yet Hill’s picture isn’t winking at the camera either. Butch and Sundance are best of friends, who just happen to be thieves for a living. And even though in a typical picture, one might frown up such cruel and illegal behavior, there’s no doubt Goldman’s comedic, nostalgic script will win you over almost instantaneously.

What Newman and Redford accomplished on screen in 1969 will stand the test of time through American cinema. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a culmination of comedic and dramatic storytelling, thriving in its own simplistic action sequences, and morphing into one of the most enjoyable, enigmatic, and entertaining pictures I’ve seen.

While writing this, I can almost faintly here Burt Bacharach’s moody score, simultaneously questioning: “Who are these guys?”

I laughed. I smiled. And I watched, rigorously and happily. It’s a beautiful thing when a film can just, surprise you, isn’t it?

Rating: ★★★★

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Cast: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross

Director: George Roy Hill

Writer: William Goldman

Runtime: 110 minutes

Genre: western, drama, crime


Danny Boyle’s second directorial effort is an inside looking out presentation of the drug mantra set in Scotland during the 1990’s. Creating from a very personal level, Boyle centers in on these four rather degenerate drug users.

The film does a very good job documenting the use of heroin and the effects of such a devious drug. In fact, Trainspotting has an often-pragmatic outlook on the drug intake: being fair to both sides of the stick, Boyle presents the audience the benefits of using heroin and the awful, downright unsettling characteristics that come along with it.

Despite containing four unemployed gents, the film primarily focuses on Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor): an Edinburgh low-life who is going to finally stop injecting heroin. That’s where the film begins and that’s where it ends. The in between of the story is where his desperate attempts to stay away come into play. However, with the allure of the drug and his friends – along with a 14 year-old girlfriend, constantly flaunting and embracing the very substance he’s trying to quit, he succumbs to temptation, time and time again.

For about the first 45 minutes Trainspotting feels like an exercise of style. Too many scenes are dramatized, characters seemingly never able to make a change (even when a baby is killed because of the drug), and Trainspotting, in total – just didn’t seem like it was destined to go anywhere. But then, like any great auteur, Boyle reinvents his picture midway through. What was once a convoluted, utterly annoying, and too hip for its own good genre b-flick, turns into a downright saddening, though entirely compelling film.

The Band: Without the musical talent and with the drugs

Boyle explores the terrain of addiction, seduction, and retraction. Our lead character continuously pledges to stay away from it all: that this will be his last time and then he’s done.  But, like many of us who know what it is like to be addicted to something, refraining from the seemingly natural – isn’t so easy.

What happens to all of the characters in the end is believable and genuine. Trainspotting constructs an honest atmosphere – one filled with authenticity and grit.

Though, I’m not quite sure what to make of the picture. Yes, it’s well designed and acted, but the whole film treads the thin line of being exploitative to a state of mediocrity and stupidity. What could’ve of been a masterwork on insight into addiction, turns out to be a hyper-kinetic, high-octane, fast paced 94-minute thrill ride, bursting with convulsive energy and an electrifying leading performance from Ewan McGregor.

With Trainspotting Boyle sure showed audiences and critics alike plenty of raw and nuanced potential. Luckily, he’d build on that in years to come.

Rating: ★★★☆


Trainspotting (1996)

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: John Hodge, Irvine Welsh

Runtime: 94 minutes

Genre: drama, crime, comedy

Trailer Trainspotting

Cold Weather

Aaron Katz has something. There’s a talent grounded in his newest film, Cold Weather: a mumbelcore stylistic effort that focus on the relationships and quirks of the characters on screen, more than the story at hand. Unfortunately, despite gifts for staging jaw-droopingly beautiful scenes, Katz has delivered a film lacking storytelling that ultimately morphs into an exercise of style over substance.

The threadbare plot follows Doug (Cris Lankenau), a former forensic science major from Chicago who leaves to return to his hometown in Oregon. Soon after moving back in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), Doug becomes entangled in the mystery of his ex-girlfriends sudden and abrupt disappearance.

To join Doug in this enigmatic tale is his sensical sister Gail and colleague (they work at an ice factory) Carlos (Raul Castillo). The unexpected event, yes calls upon Doug’s once taut and investigative mind. Surpsingly, Katz develops his characters quite nicely as we learn that everyone on screen here is more than what catches the eye at first glance.

The strong development in characterization is what makes Cold Weather such an uneven endeavor. For reason unexplainable, the central premise where Doug’s girlfriend goes missing and then reappears, only to complicate the aimless plot, is so strangely underdeveloped. Simply put, nothing, for lack of a better term, occurs with any life or excitement.

Perhaps the down-low nature of the film will work for some viewers. Me? Not so much. Cold Weather, albeit all of its great performances and breathtaking set pieces, is an indie-crime noir that drowns in its own lackadaisical subtleties.

Rating: ★★☆☆

Cold Weather

Cold Weather (2010)

Cast: Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raul Castillo

Director: Aaron Katz

Writer: Aaron Katz, Brendan McFadden

Runtime: 96 minutes

Genre: drama