Invincible (2006), or Well Meaning, But Empty

23 12 2009

Well, ladies and germs, it’s almost Christmas time, so I suppose it’s time for me to review an uplifting film for a change. I am not keen on watching too many actual Christmas movies, considering that most of them leave a taste in my mouth I could only liken to that of a candy cane found in a dead man’s chest cavity, so I’ll instead opt to just write a review on a movie that is not about murder or bizarre sexual practices. Disney’s Invincible is one of those feel-good movies, a movie that makes you believe that you can do anything if you try hard enough, even if it just isn’t possible in any realistic sensibility. It also tries to remind us that second chances ARE possible, despite our high-minded cynicism. It’s an unreasonably bland affair, other than the message of hope, with not that much to bolster its 90 minute run time besides a plot so hardwired to the tracks that changing the course with original thoughts might just be structurally impossible. But, in this instance, that isn’t such a bad thing.

The plot is based on the true story of the 1976 Philadelphia Football Team With Some Mascot I Can’t Think Of At The Moment. Their team sucks big time, embarrassing the city and all the owners. So, in a desperate bid for success, they try something SO CRAZY THAT IT JUST MIGHT WORK; they actually start open tryouts for people to play on their NFL team. The one guy they cull from the droves of idiots and not-quites is Vince Papale, a 30 year old Philly native who has the drive to win and a burning desire to prove himself. His life has hit the skids since his wife left him, his teaching job fell through, and he was reduced to bartending at a local pub recently to keep himself afloat. He is a long shot, being a little old to start out as a rookie, but that won’t stop him, and maybe nothing will. But desperate coach Dick Vermeil will ride this guy’s ass until he’s ready to quit; can these two take each other to the Playoffs in 1976? Or is Vince too old to start a new career as a guy who gets beat to shit for a living?

There goes my cynicism again! And I JUST finished watching this movie! In spite of my misgivings, it actually is a very inspiring movie. Much like the Disney movies of old, I was moved to go out and do something with myself after I got done with it. The “based on a true story” aspect of it is really the neat part. Someone with a dream and a lot of initiative actually made it into the NFL, beating out all other prospective hopefuls and joining the ranks of legendary football players like (and these are just off the top of my head) Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, um, Babe Ruth, Pelé, and Winston Churchill, I think. It makes you feel like any day could be the day you turn your life around. I think the world needs a little more of that, even if it’s from a predictable football movie.

The movie is really sold by Mark Wahlberg. His Vince Papale is as earnest as can be, and a real charmer to boot. The first part of the film, watching Papale’s life fall apart, wasn’t pretty to watch, and he made us feel it personally with his body language and an impressive failure in his eyes. It is a role that seems to define his later career, that of the put-upon man looking for some sort of redemption. But here he certainly gets it and then some as an actor. Greg Kinnear shines as similarly put-upon coach of the Philadelphia Platypi (is that it?), but he doesn’t fare as well. The problem is that his hard-ass coach role has been filed by so many more impressive performances over the years, like Gene Hackman or Denzel Washington, that this seems sort of an afterthought to have him here. I would have much rather seen Robert Patrick as the hard-ass coach than nonthreatening Greg Kinnear. I could kill Greg Kinnear with my left thigh alone, so watching him coach fully grown large men without a larger-than-life attitude to back it up is a little weak. And Elizabeth Banks shows up as a love interest for Vince to look really pretty. She can’t even really look too HOT, since this is a Disney movie, so her contributions are scanty at best.

Invincible isn’t really a movie to dwell on too much. It’s a sports movie where a guy gets everything he wanted after living a life of poverty and loneliness. We get it, nobody will be surprised at the ideas being put forth, and this will end up as a movie sold at Wal Mart around 3:28 in the morning. But Invincible has a spirit that a lot of movies today have lost in their pessimism. It gently reminds us of a most valuable lesson, that it’s never too late to take your life in your hands and go for it; there are no rules in our hearts, just the limits we build around it. I enjoyed that immensely, even though I thought most everything else was trending towards the mediocre, including the soundtrack, most of the acting, and the incredibly boring direction. All in all, though, Invincible still gets 6 1/2 Philadelphia Platypi out of 10!

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, so I will be very curious as to what I watch! Hopefully it’s something positive and uplifting! Until then!!

The Departed (2006), or Palpable Dupilicity

17 12 2009

A big thanks to the always-delightful Jenni for requesting this movie! And letting me borrow the special edition on DVD! And for being so generous with her time! Thanks for just being Jenni!

Martin Scorcese has made an entire mainstream career out of the crime drama. The life of the criminal is something that has taken a firm grip in his imagination for the past 40 years in the business. From Italian mobsters to turn of the century Irish gang members to Italian mobsters to psychotic rapists to Italian mobsters, Scorcese has examined the ne’er-do-well and put his methods into the public consciousness for generations to come.  Scorcese’s most recent crime film, The Departed, is another classic that deserves to live atop the glittering, gleaming mountain of public adoration that his other movies inhabit. It’s an intense, intricate examination of identity in a cat-and-mouse struggle that does not let up for more than a moment.

Basically a remake of Infernal Affairs, a blazing Asian crime film made in ’02, The Departed changes the setting from Hong Kong to Boston and adds a few Scorcesian twists. Colin Sullivan, growing up in the mean streets of Boston, was always protected by local mob boss Frank Costello. Costello treated him like a father, the way he did with many young men in the neighborhood, grooming them for service in his syndicate. Costello placed so much faith in him that he trained Sullivan to be his mole in the police, so that he would keep tabs on all the cops poking in on his business. Sullivan has done all that has been asked of him by Costello, who he sees as something of a father figure, and it has been easy for him to play both sides. Unfortunately for him, the police have begun to suspect a mole is in their midst, so they send out one of their own. William Costigan, a young cop from a poor Irish Catholic family, is asked to pose as a criminal, gain entry into Costello’s inner circle, and help bring him down. Both of them infiltrate into their assigned organizations, but they both end up arousing suspicions about spies, so they are essentially sent on missions looking for themselves (!!!). Someone has to sniff out someone, though, so it becomes a battle between the two moles to reveal each other before it’s too late. Who will prevail? And how many lives will be lost in the process?

What a captivating concept!!! The Departed takes the innate suspence of lies and recrimination and uses it against us as we are helpless against the drama of it all. Scorcese keeps us rapt in attention as we mysteriously cheer for the sustaining of a lie. Costigan’s situation is such a lose-lose. Much like Nick Nolte’s character from Mother Night, his identity is basically in the hands of one man. Nobody else knows he is undercover, so he has every possibility of being arrested, which would be bad because Sullivan is a police officer!!! It’s very intense, but we are also taken in a bit by the family-man nature of Sullivan. Besides dropping some info here and there to Costello, he’s not a serial killer or some kind of madman. He’s just a man with ties who is trying to cover his ass and his buddy Costello’s ass while he works his sweet desk job. It’s incredibly well-written, and I found myself really involved with these characters and their confusing lives.

Scorcese did not make a shot-for-shot remake by any means. He adds the flair of a director still wanting to try something new. He and his constant cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, creates a Boston that is dirty, frightening, and hopeless. It’s also the most intriguing portrait of the city I have ever seen, so what does that say for the city itself, I wonder… Either way, these characters live in a rough and tumble city, so everybody in this town seems to be as tough as nails. The way they’re shot, the way they talk, and the way they seem to constantly skirt death, all seem to suggest an outward toughness that is only equaled by their hidden, vulnerable interiors. Scorcese really outdid himself here, and while there’s not much to mull over, it doesn’t seem to give us much time to think anyway, so it makes for a good, quality drama that has a lot of stylistic tones to keep us invested.

The cast is superb, as far as big-name Hollywood goes. Jack Nicholson, although somewhat of a Red Herring as far as the story goes, steals the show as Frank Costello. He chews so much scenery I’m surprised he didn’t rip a hole in Boston’s side! His character is so crass and loud and, at times, ridiculous, that it’s like he’s from a different movie. Costello is that character who doesn’t give a fuck anymore because he’s old, but he’d rather die than let anyone disrespect him, so he randomly becomes super-serious and rather scary on a dime, which I suppose is Jack Nicholson’s specialty. What an exceptional character! I love the two moles, though, as well, Sullivan and Costigan, who are played by Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively. These two are intense! They both play essentially the same character under different circumstances, but it’s really interesting how much more you care about DiCaprio’s Costigan despite their similarities. Costigan has it rough, having to pretend to be a street tough and not having much means of fighting back against Sullivan’s trickery. But Sullivan does have the mental anguish to contend with, the nagging sensation that what he’s doing is wrong and that Costello is just using him. Both actors do a fine job, and I’m glad they received the attention they did at the Academy Awards. There are a few good cameos, but my favorite two are Vera Farmiga, whose small role as a psychiatrist who is romantically linked to both moles is the emotional rock of this rough-and-tumble crime saga. She again impresses, just like she did in the shameful horror film Orphan, and makes me connect to this story even more. Mark Wahlberg plays Dignam, one of the only cops aware of Costigan’s identity, and a real bad-ass. No more Mr. Nice Guy here! Marky Mark is willing to fuck some stuff up to get the info he needs and the respect he deserves. Any in-fighting between the cops usually involves him being one step away from pounding someone. He’s great, and I particularly enjoyed his fateful exchange with an FBI goon asking about his contacts, who happens to be his brother, Robert Wahlberg:

Agent Lazio: Do you have anyone in with Costello presently?

Dignam: Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.

Great stuff!!!!!!

The Departed is a great crime flick about secrets, and how they can be used as a weapon. There are some great performances, some amazing camera work, a decent soundtrack, and some of the best (and at times funniest) dialog in mainstream Hollywood of the decade. In time, it will be a classic, in the vein of Scorcese’s other gems. But for now, it’s a movie that needs to be watched again and again for its amazing quality and succinct storyline. I give The Departed 9 1/2 blind moles out of 10. A high recommendation!

Stay with me, folks, as I continue to write through the night! Later on, I’ll have a review of The Royal Tenenbaums for you! Until then!!!

I Heart Huckabees (2004), or Where’s The Love?

26 09 2009

I’m always at odds with I Heart Huckabees. Part of me loves its madcap antics and its existential search for cosmic meaning. There’s a lot of talent here, and anyone can find a character to latch onto, I think. Director and writer David O. Russell has a lot of interesting ontological ideas at play here as well as a style that I personally relished. On the other hand, a lot of the characters are sorely one-dimensional and quirky to a fault,  there’s no clear conflict, much less a resolved conflict, and I felt there to be more than a bit of the ol’ meandering throughout the main plot that really detracted from any momentum I Heart Huckabees hoped to gain. Hmmmm…

Well, where to begin? It all starts with Albert, an ecological activist who is having an existential crisis of sorts. He is trying to save an area of land from being turned into a Huckabees department store (real world equivalent: Target). He’s fighting with all he’s got, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good, especially when a smarmy executive for Huckabees named Brad weasels his way into his organization and gets them on his side. His philosophical awakening comes when he sees a conspicuously large African doorman 3 separate times in the course of a day. He gets the feeling that this means something, and he contacts two “existential detectives”, who teach him a doctrine of “universal interconnectivity” that opens his eyes to a whole new realm of consciousness. In this awakening of his, the detectives issue him an “other” (sort of a philosophical sponsor) to help him through this process. His other, Tommy, is a very outspoken firefighter who is trying universal connectivity, but isn’t afraid to punch somebody in the face about it either. They’re a strange pair, but it somehow works. For a while, anyways. The problem is that the philosophy seems incomplete, because Albert still feels miserable, and the doctrine said nothing about all the misfortune happening around him. Tommy knows someone who might be able to help, but it would mean going in the complete opposite direction philosophically. Things aren’t going well in weaselly Brad’s life either, as the detectives have approached him and questioned the meaning in his shallow corporate life and his vapid relationship with a Huckabees model. What will happen to these strange individuals now that philosophy and meaningful thought has been introduced into their lives? Will it make a difference to them? Will they stay the same? Should it matter whether there is a change or not, as long as the concepts have been explored, thus creating a cognizance that one can use for honest and healthy appraisal of the self?

It’s hard to imagine where David O. Russell got this idea from. Perhaps he was sitting in a community college philosophy course and was bored, penning a Hardy Boys-esque mystery story called “The Philosophy Detectives” that morphed into today’s film. Or perhaps David O. Russell is slightly insane/brilliant. We’ll never know. But I like the idea of infusing philosophical aspects to modern day scenarios in a very literal sense. That’s inventive, fresh, and all kinds of interesting, and I think more directors should get the chutzpah to try something so bold and unique. Just don’t do it exactly like today’s film.

You see, I Heart Huckabees suffers from a lack of focus. We’re not really learning anything from these characters on a philosophical level. They seem more hungry for semantics than anything else, skirting around the edges of the subject but avoiding any real touchstones into the ideas of existentialism or transcendentalism. It just stands out as weird rather than insightful. And even if we were to defend it by calling it a comedy, not only would it totally invalidate every non-joke philosophical discussion put up on screen, but it also raises doubts as to how funny the movie is, because I wasn’t exactly laughing my ass off during the whole universal interconnectivity discussion.

The cast is mixed, but leaning towards good. My breakdown: Jude Law as weaselly Brad, not good. I was not impressed in the slightest by this character, because Jude Law didn’t seem very into his own work. He smiled a lot and made his usual “I’m incredulous!” faces, but to no avail.

Jason Schwartzman as Albert, good. Schwartzman comes into his own and brings a lot of zest into this movie with his role. Albert is astute but lost, all together there but confused. It makes his awakening all the more interesting to watch as he blooms as a character.

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin as the existential detectives, so-so. These two were just kinda there. They certainly said there lines, and I definitely saw some movement on the screen, but I was not too thrilled with anything they put up on screen. They seemed tired, worn-out, almost jet-lagged, and perhaps had better things to do in their opinions.

Mark Wahlberg as Tommy the Other, very good. Wahlberg shows time and time again that he indeed CAN act when he wants to, and proves it here again with short-fused Tommy Corn, firefighter/rough-and-tumble philosopher/lover. He’s probably my favorite character, overall, and has a lot of hilarious energy to offer this movie.

Naomi Watts as Dawn, Brad’s model girlfriend, good. Watts uses her charm sparingly here to play a vacuous woman who has a philosophical epiphany. I liked what she did here, because a lot of real emotions came up when she finds out what kind of a guy Brad really is and what kind of corporation Huckabees is when she figures out that they only wanted her for her beauty. Not her best work, but not bad.

Isabelle Huppert as Caterine Vauban, sexy. Ms. Huppert plays this character, the typical French Nihilist, with comedic precision and undeniable sex appeal, despite her incredibly thick accent. You can understand most of it; she’s just VERY French. I like her character’s motivations and her portrayal quite a bit, and you also can’t forget about her legendary sex appeal, which radiates from the screen like a radioactive cougar.

It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but I Heart Huckabees is far from terrible. There are some logical questions that nagged me, some more philosophy I would have liked to explore, a cast that wasn’t all there, perhaps some more, I don’t know, jokes, but it works with what it has. I think that despite that, though, it’s a comedy with a fair amount of insight and intelligent humor that I wouldn’t have a problem with watching again. I was going to give this movie a 6, but the Shania Twain running joke bumped it up a notch, so I’m giving I Heart Huckabees 7 radioactive cougars out of 10. ROAR!

Keep an eye out for my review of Pandorum later tonight! I leave you with a clip of the legendary on-set argument between Lily Tomlin and director David O. Russell while they filmed I Heart Huckabees. It’s quite possibly one of the best blow-ups I’ve seen in a while: