>> BNAT X: The Stuff We Didn’t See

Everyone expected Watchmen but no, I didn’t see Watchmen, the one film everyone thought would play BNAT X. Two years ago, director Zak Snyder came to town and showed off an unfinished version of 300 to the crowd at Octo-BNAT, so everyone assumed that he’d be back to dazzle us with an unfinished version of his Watchmen adaptation. It didn’t happen. For some attendees, this was a massive let-down. For me, it was just another BNAT surprise.

Read the FULL ARTICLE on cybermonkeydeathsquad.com! I will be writing for CMDS throughout 2009, as well as keeping up with reviews on this very site.

>> The Wrestler (9/10)

The WrestlerThe Wrestler is not an underdog story.  It’s not the story of a man with an unattainable dream who works beyond all odds to get within reach of his dream.  If that story is a part of The Wrestler at all, then it happened a good twenty-five years or so before this film starts.  Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) has already achieved his goal; he has already lived the dream.  The Wrestler is about the “now what?” that comes afterward, in a profession where the human body will insure that you aren’t the top star forever.  Pro wrestling is a profession where the fake extends beyond just the in-ring violence, where the distinction between your own personality and the character you play every single night begins to blur so badly that it affects your personal relationships, where your own level of celebrity is a sham, calculated for you by booking agents and your in-ring partners, both with their own set of agendas.  The Wrestler is a story that feels like the very real biography of the dozens, if not hundreds, of men that have seen their lives go from bubble gum cards, action-figures, and  performing on television in front of millions to menial jobs, nagging ailments, and wrestling shows in gymnasiums in front of a handful of people.

This movie just feels lived in, more than any other narrative film released in 2008.  You get that sense of fly-on-the-wall audience participation while you watch this that some documentaries have, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Wrestler has a documentary feel.  It’s intimate.  The actors physically inhabit their roles.  I believe Mickey Rourke is Randy the Ram.  I can see it in his watery eyes, the face that looks like it was formed out of clay, the way he breathes and sighs and talks in that gravel-pit voice  of a pro wrestler.  I believe Marisa Tomei is Pam.  I can see it in her desperation, her sad smile that still manages to burn at 100-watts through sheer force of will.

Pam is “Cassidy”, the dancer that Randy takes a shine to at a local strip club, both of them drawn together in part by the artificial personas they’re trapped in, alter egos of their own creation, neither one finding real life particularly easy to deal with.  Randy decides to take a crack at a real retirement, after being treated for heart problems, and he’s urged by Pam to reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  It’s a noble idea, but the truth is that Randy is a bit of a bastard–it’s the reason he’s broke and alone–and the pop of an always adoring crowd is not easily substituted by the emotional stickiness that comes with real life.

In this way, director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) has created another portrait of addiction.  Randy is addicted to love, and “fake” love is much easier to get than real love.  It’s by no means as rewarding, but Randy only knows that when he is performing, he feels love.  When he’s working the deli counter at a supermarket, when he’s pleading with his daughter, or when he’s trying to get Pam to bend her own rules on dating customers, he doesn’t feel it.  We know that the crowd response is fleeting, because we’re on the outside looking in, but to the person standing right in the warm glow of the cheering crowd, the emotions are much too strong to make a difference.

I loved every minute of The Wrestler.  It’s a small, truthful movie, one that will offer non-wrestling fans an extremely personal look into a world they didn’t know was this interesting, and for the wrestling fans, it reflects the tale of every upper-mid card superstar that went from fame to famine.  It’s the year’s best love story, and fully deserving of every bit of praise it has received along the film fest circuit.

9 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (7.5/10)

The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonBenjamin Button is born old.  Left by his father, a button tycoon, on the doorstep of a Louisiana nursing home, his wrinkly, decrepit baby body is raised by one of the caregivers in the home.  As he grows older in years, his body grows younger.  He meets a little girl named Daisy, and though he is her age, his elderly appearance keeps him from becoming her playmate.  Instead, he waits out the decades, working as a hired hand on a tugboat, seeing the world, until the time comes where his age and his looks can both catch up and meet square in the middle.  He returns to Daisy, hopeful that they can spend a few years together, before she grows too old and he grows too young to keep their romance going.

At its best, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a technical marvel and a warm-hearted, beautful movie.  At its worst, Benjamin Button is a desperate, overblown exercise in sentimentality. trying very, very hard to get a reaction that really shouldn’t be this difficult to get.  It wants you to feel romantic and wistful and sad, but it takes such a detour-laden path to get there, that the film never earns those honest emotions from the audience in response.  The last time I can think of where someone spent this much time and money and tech whiz-bang trying to get an audience to cry a little was Bicentennial Man, the multi-generational Robin Williams sci-fi love story.

If Benjamin Button is primarily the love story between Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) , and I think that it is, since the movie is framed by Julia Ormand as Daisy’s daughter, reading aloud from Button’s diary to Daisy while she waits on her death bed on the eve of hurricane Katrina (that’s three tear-jerking situations stuffed into one, and yet, no tears are jerked), then why is the meat of the love story relegated to the final forty-five minutes of a two hour and forty-five minute film?  If I asked you to take me someplace I had never been before, and you drove around for a long while, and the scenery was nice and I enjoyed the conversation, but when we arrived, I realized that not only had I been to this place before, but that you took the long way to get there, some thoughts are going to pop up.  Did you know where you were going?  Why did you take the long way?  Do I have a right to complain, since I admittedly enjoyed the overall trip?

Director David Fincher has created a solid drama, with a solid, likeable cast, from a screenplay by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, who borrows his own emotional beats of Gump to diminished effect.  Jenny becomes Daisy.  Mrs. Gump becomes Queenie.  The boarding house becomes an old folks’ home.  Lieutenant Dan and Vietnam become Captain Mike and World War II.  Forrest’s leg braces become Benjamin’s wheelchair.  There are even specific scenes that feel lifted wholesale from Gump, like the one that finds Benjamin heading to New York to watch Daisy perform, then getting his heart broken when he sees she’s got a new life.  Just like Jenny and Forrest, Daisy gives Benjamin the “go-home-this-is-my-life-now” speech, while Benjamin offers puppy dog eyes and plaintive declarations of love.

Some moments in Benjamin Button are truly special, but the undeniable success of a handful of scenes is not enough to elevate The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to masterpiece status.  The bittersweet romance works only through the strength of the actors, not the derivative screenplay or the impressive cinematography, and generally, when you try and force movie magic in a way that is more technical than organic, the audience is going to resist a little.  Despite all that, Benjamin Button is so close to being great at times that it still manages to be a must-see this Holiday season.  You can tell what it’s aiming for, and it misses, maybe not enough to damage the overall enjoyment of the movie, but enough that you’ll be able to tell.

7.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Slumdog Millionaire (8.5/10)

Slumdog MillionaireThe new Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire opens with torture and ends with dancing, and the journey that takes place between these bookends is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies all year long.  Boyle (28 Days Later, Millions, Trainspotting) is gutsy, a filmmaker who seems to enjoy taking big artistic risks on the road to creating broadly appealing movies.  He has mastered the artsy crowd-pleaser, films infused with individuality and the independent spirit, while telling stories that seem to find an audience beyond the art-house theatre crowd.  Slumdog Millionaire is no different.

Despite its exotic Indian locale, the immediate Western connection to Slumdog Millionaire comes in the form of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the trivia game show that once bogged down our airwaves five nights a week at the peak of its national craze.  As the film opens, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is being roughly interrogated by Mumbai police for getting so far along on India’s version of the game show that he stands to take home the top prize, despite not just a lack of formal education, but that the fact that he is quite literally a street kid, a slumdog.  Providence has seen to it that each one of the questions that Jamal has been asked on the TV show are somehow intrinsically related to his own life story.  He relates this harrowing biography to the police, and to us, the audience, a story that is at times a tale of coming-of-age horror, a bitter crime drama involving his morally questionable brother Salim, and a grand love story between himself and his childhood friend Latika.

The story is suspenseful and emotionally moving, and the minute I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it worked exactly the way Danny Boyle wanted it work was when he successfully displays a brief montage at the end of the film of memorable moments from within the very film we just saw.  That’s really bold, but it worked.  As I revisited those little moments, moments that I had witnessed not even two hours before, I grinned like they were scenes from one of my favorite movies.  Boyle got me.  He was so confident that people would love this movie, he knew a second or two from the “good parts” edited together would deliver the cinematic equivalent of a joyous hug.  I may have admired this one achievement in Slumdog Millionaire more than any other.

There’s a lot to admire in this energetic film.  Beyond the familiar suspense of the game show itself, there’s the dangerous and beautiful locale, fairly alien to my American eyes, where hideous mountains of garbage take on a strange otherworldly quality.  There’s a killer musical selection, including an early stand-out chase sequence in a shanty town set so perfectly to the jangly beat of an M.I.A song, that I don’t think either the scene or the song can exist without the other.  Dev Patel’s performance is earnest and real, and the child actors playing young Jamal, Salim, and Latika are simply amazing.  Frieda Pinto as the modern day Latika is profoundly beautiful.  I found it difficult to keep myself from running up to the movie screen and attempting a prolonged make-out session.

Before the movie started, I overheard a conversation between two strangers sitting to my right, jokingly worried they were about to see something pretentious and dry because of the reputation of the art-house venue where the screening was taking place.  Slumdog Millionaire may look different than what’s usually playing at the megaplex (there’s not a white person in sight for one thing, and I didn’t miss ’em), but the journey is far more rewarding than the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and, honestly, just as widely appealing.  It’s tragic, exciting, romantic, funny, and uplifting, running the gamut of human emotion while telling an unpredictable story that never fails to entertain and move me.  If you can tell me a better reason to watch movies, I’d like to hear it.

8.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Bolt (7.5/10)

BoltWhen it comes to movies, the folks at Disney know how to craft one heck of a pop song.  Their movies keep the beat, they’re cheerful, and they have a memorable hook.  I know “pop” is almost a dirty word nowadays, due to a badly smudged line between actual creativity and the creation of corporate tie-in product, and I recognize that a lot of folks feel the same way about the word “Disney”, for exactly the same reasons.  Bolt is the first Disney in-house animated film to bear the fingerprints of Pixar’s John Lassiter, and it brushes some of the dirt off of the reputation of recent Disney animation, serving as a strong reminder of why Disney is THE trusted brand-name for family entertainment.

Bolt is a superior piece of comedic adventure about a dog named Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) that stars in his own superhero-action television show.  The twist is that the producers of the show are committed to keeping Bolt protected from the knowledge that the show isn’t real, in order to get a more realistic performance from the dog.  When an accident finds Bolt shipped to New York City from his cushy L.A. trailer, he’s not only “powerless” for the first time in his life (Bolt assumes packing peanuts are his Kryptonite), but he’s seperated from his human as well, his caretaker and TV co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus).  Taking a cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) hostage as his guide, he embarks on a cross-country trip home.  The trip leads to Bolt befriending an overachieving TV-junkie hamster named Rhino (animator Mark Walton), as well as Bolt’s rude awakening that he’s a regular dog and not a superhero at all.

The film blatantly copies the Buzz character arc of Toy Story and the Woody arc from Toy Story 2, and combines them into one film, just shiny enough to seem like something altogether new.  Bolt’s stubborn refusal to believe that he is anything but a normal dog, attempting acts of superheroics that make himself look foolish, are the same character bits we saw Buzz Lightyear go through over ten years ago.  A scene in Las Vegas exploring Mittens’ disdain for human owners, how they just end up leaving you behind, felt like a word-for-word replay of the scene in Toy Story 2 in which Jesse pleads with Woody to just forget about the humans because they only end up hurting you.  I half-expected Sarah McLachlan’s “When Somebody Loves You” to play in the background.  Honestly, though, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and I’m actually surprised no one has ever stolen this blatantly from the  Toy Story films before.  These borrowed pieces work pretty well for Bolt, and the film is still fairly original in its execution, if not its ideas.

Bolt is a great new Disney character, and Travolta brings such a natural, enthusiastic  life to the pup, that it may be his best performance in years.  The thing that Disney’s Bolt accomplishes that the Pixar movies accomplish (the thing that Dreamworks animated movies do NOT accomplish) is hitting the bullseye in regards to family entertainment–where the humor and action that work for junior will also work just as well for mom and dad.  There aren’t separate gags  for the kids and separate gags for the grown-ups (ala Dreamworks).  The entertainment in Bolt is for everybody.  It’s a sophisticated, funny, and enjoyable time at the movies, no matter how old you are.  And, frankly, that’s what a Disney film should be like every single time.

7.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Punisher War Zone (5.5/10)

punisher war zone“Let me axe you a question,” says Doug Hutchison as the villainous Loony Bin Jim, seconds before repeatedly bringing an axe down into the body of a hapless accomplice of vigilante Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) in Punisher War Zone.  Later, when Castle aka The Punisher comes across his wounded buddy, he begs of him, “Don’t die on me!”  The camera then cuts to the victim, an impossible and hilarious mess of blood and guts and severed limbs.  And I giggled.

I giggled a lot during this movie.  If the suits at Lionsgate or Marvel want a review pull-quote, I’ll offer up one right now:  Punisher War Zone is the best Punisher film yet!  Not as dull as the Dolph Lundgren version, not as misguided as the Thomas Jane incarnation, the moment Stevenson appears as Punisher, striking a bright pink road flare before killing the ever-lovin’ holy hell out of a mafia family in a dozen different ways, you realize that you are actually watching THE Punisher in action for the very first time, despite two previous films that claim they’re based on the same source material (comic books) as this glorious piece of trash cinema.  The downside is the film never really gets any better than that opening introduction.

Dominic West plays an untouchable gangster who takes the name Jigsaw after Castle tosses him into a glass-crushing recycling machine during a heated shoot-out–a chaotic event that sees Castle accidentally taking the life on an undercover FBI agent.  Jigsaw spends most of his time negotiating some kind of vague deal involving Russians, terrorists, and bio-weapons, while also plotting to hunt down the widow (Julie Benz) of the mole in his group and kill her.  Castle considers hanging up the old skull vest due to the accidental shooting, but, and I don’t think this gives anything away, thinks better of it, and decides to just kill a whole bunch of people instead, including Jigsaw and his cronies.

Punisher War Zone is almost a brilliant parody of hyper-stylized action films, but there’s still too strong of a desire by the creative forces behind the film, including director Lexi Alexander, to pander to the proto-neanderthals that have kept Punisher skull t-shirts on the racks of Wal-Mart for the past fifteen years.  Amazingly, the movie is at its smartest when it gets really, really dumb.  Conversely, the parts of the film that aspire to being like a normal action movie are the parts that end up being truly idiotic.  This probably won’t make any sense until you see it, but trust me.  When I giggled, the film earned the giggle, for better or worse, but when it aims for being legitimately cool, I was almost always bored in a “c’mon, let’s get on with it” way.  You want the ridiculous dialogue, not Wayne Knight as Microchip.

I would’ve preferred that they went all-out with the silliness, instead of holding back a little, but the one area in which they don’t hold back is the violence.  Heads pop like water balloons as Castle dishes out vengeance with a cartoonish, grotesque strength.  Stevenson is at his most believable when he keeps his mouth shut (due primarily to his weak American accent), stomping through neon streets in full riot gear with dead-set eyes and every conceivable ballistics weapon known to man strapped to his body.  West makes an interesting foil as Jigsaw, comic book-y in all the worst ways, like a rejected Dick Tracy rogue bearing a New Yawk accent with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face.  The scene in which Jigsaw gives a speech in front of a waving American flag to a group of African-American thugs, all of them holding their guns sideways, brought tears to my eyes.   Tears of laughter.

This is either a “good” bad movie or a “bad” good movie, one of the two, take your pick.  It’s got “guilty pleasure” written all over it for sure, but be careful, because the guilty WILL be punished.

5.5 on a 1 to 10 scale

>> Synecdoche, New York (8.5/10)

synedoche new yorkWhat does this film say to me as an overweight writer with health issues and women problems?  Nothing I didn’t already know.  And what does this film say to me about death–the larger theme at work throughout Synecdoche, New York?  Again, nothing I didn’t already know.  But this movie isn’t about me; it’s about screenwriter/director Charlie Kauffman, and he uses Synecdoche, NY to bring a nightmare to the big screen in which a writer/director (Caden Cotard, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) merges his personal life with his professional life to the point where he is no longer able to tell the difference, all the while striving to create a single honest moment in his work before he dies.

When I use the word “nightmare”, it’s the closest thing I can think of that describes the strange world of Synecdoche, NY.  There are bits of non-sequiter weirdness that don’t exactly feel like something symbolic or representative of any hidden meaning, they simply feel like part of a dream.  The line between different characters is blurred.  A self-help book writes itself as it is being read.  A house burns with flames from the moment one character considers buying it, through the course of the entire film.  Real petals fall from a flower tattoo.  An artist creates miniature portraits so small they require special lenses to see.  All of the female characters are improbably and overtly sexual.  We are watching Caden Cotard’s nightmare–a dream created by Kauffman for this character, in Kauffman’s quest to find a single honest moment in his own work as a writer, which is always about personal identity (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

For a good portion of its running time, Synecdoche, NY is weird but funny and easily accessible.  The film opens with Cotard and his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and daughter Olive living a fairly unhappy life in New York.  Cotard is a director of bad plays, looked up to by his cast (including Michelle Williams) and fawned over by the girl that works the box office (Samantha Morton, cute as a button here).  Cotard may be a psychosomatic hypochondriac, and his overall impotence, as a husband, as a creator, and as a man lead to Adele packing up the kid and moving to Europe.  It’s around this time that Cotard wins a grant, a bottomless well of funds to stage his life’s greatest work.  He decides that this great work, this massive stage production, will be an examination of his own life.

He hires people he knows to play other people within his own life, creating situations for himself that make it impossible for him to hide anything from anyone since all of his lies and insecurities are brought to true life by the very people involved in his personal world,  It creates a confusing, but not unrewarding situation for the audience, as Kauffman smudges the line between Cotard’s life and the life of the play, which are essentially the same thing, only…not.  As Cotard keeps on living, the play keeps on going (and growing, as the play reaches a point where the actor playing Cotard must produce a play based on Cotard’s life), and the production spans decades, until it reaches its inevitavle conclusion.

This is Kauffman’s first outing as a director, and he does a fantastic job as a first-timer.  Synecdoche, NY is complicated and dark, and even with all of its puzzling dreaminess, it still feels emotionally solid and rewarding.  The reward comes in watching someone’s imagination at work, full-steam ahead, creating a dense, crazed story that feels shockingly personal.  There are moments that feel unnecessary (the Hope Davis subplot comes to mind), but these are things that might make themselves more clear in repeat viewings.  I won’t be sure until I get a chance to revisit the film.  It’s as intimate a glimpse into someone’s brain during R.E.M. sleep that you are likely to ever get, and despite the film’s lack of any real revelations on the subject of truth in art or death, it remains unforgettable.

8.5 on a 1 to 10 scale