Restless: Live Like You Were Dying

by Ethan Alter September 16, 2011 12:27 pm
<i>Restless</i>: Live Like You Were Dying

Since striking box-office gold with 1998's Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant has split his time between the kinds of small-scale indie experiments that launched his career (think titles like My Own Private Idaho, Gerry and Paranoid Park) and more mainstream fare pitched at a wide audience (Finding Forrester, Milk). His latest film, Restless, is a well-meaning, but wildly uneven attempt to offer moviegoers the best of both worlds. Written by novice screenwriter Jason Lew after apparent marathon viewings of Hal Ashby's 1971 classic Harold & Maude, the narrative follows the romance that blossoms between a pair of death-obsessed teenagers, Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of the recently deceased Dennis) and Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). Both of them have good reason to be fascinated by the great beyond: Enoch's parents were killed in a car crash that almost claimed his life as well. Annabel, meanwhile, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and, in the best case scenario, will only be walking and talking for three more months. In other words, this isn't the most convenient time for her to strike up a new relationship. Viewed another way though, maybe the timing is just right.

Drive: Ease On Down the Road

by Ethan Alter September 16, 2011 9:43 am
<i>Drive</i>: Ease On Down the Road

The first fifteen minutes of Drive may be the best movie I've seen this year. In an ordinary hotel room with a window that peers out on a neon-colored Los Angeles cityscape, a movie stuntman who enjoys a second career as a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling, in a commanding performance) is talking into his cell phone, tersely explaining his way of doing business to a prospective client on the other end. You have me for five minutes, he says, if you aren't back in the car by then, I'm gone. Hanging up, he heads to the garage, fires up his vehicle of choice and pulls out into the street.

The Lion King: Fathers and Sons

by Ethan Alter September 16, 2011 6:00 am
<i>The Lion King</i>: Fathers and Sons

The first and last time that I saw The Lion King was during its initial theatrical release in the summer of 1994. I was 16 at the time and was temporarily back in the U.S. from my then-current home in Hong Kong, enjoying the extended vacation that State Department families received in the middle of four-year tours abroad. Movie-wise, it was a good summer to be stateside. While most Hollywood fare made it across the Pacific, there was generally a time delay that could range from weeks to months depending on the movie in question. In the span of our roughly five-week stay in the U.S., I saw in quick succession, Keanu Reeves piloting an out-of-control city bus in Speed, Jack Nicholson getting his werewolf on in Wolf, Alec Baldwin donning cloak and fake nose to play The Shadow and Tom Hanks eating his way through a box of chocolates in Forrest Gump. And somewhere in the middle of all that, we also made time for that year's Disney offering The Lion King, because if you came of age during the Mouse House's late-'80s renaissance, going to see the studio's latest animated feature was just something you did, like breathing, eating or picking Ryu over Ken for marathon Street Fighter II sessions.

Straw Dogs: Unleash the Hounds

by Ethan Alter September 16, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Straw Dogs</i>: Unleash the Hounds

Released in 1971, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs is one of the more controversial entries in that noted provocateur's filmography. No stranger to upsetting audiences -- after all, this was the guy who filmed Hollywood icons William Holden and Ernest Borgnine being shot to bloody pulps at the end of the 1969 Western The Wild Bunch -- Peckinpah pushed the envelope even further in this story of dorky mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) who is forced to man up and defend his wife Amy (Susan George) and their remote English homestead against a gang of thugs with murder on their minds. But that wasn't the shocking part.

Warrior: Gonna Fly Now

by Ethan Alter September 9, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Warrior</i>: Gonna Fly Now

It's no accident that the best sports movies are also underdog stories. While rooting for dominant winners -- whether it's the Yanks, the Pats or Pacquiao -- is an accepted and even encouraged practice in the real wide, wide world of sports, there's just more drama in cheering on the Rudy's, Rocky's and Bad News Bears' of the big screen. Warrior, the new mixed martial arts film from Gavin O'Connor (who knows a thing or two about rousing underdog tales, having previously directed 2004's Miracle, based on the epic American/Soviet hockey match at the 1980 Olympics) doubles our pleasure of rooting for the little guy by giving us not just one, but two underdogs, both of whom are facing off against each other in the final round of a high-profile MMA tournament hoping to bring home a million-dollar payday. In one corner, you've got Brendan (Joel Edgerton), a former UFC fighter-turned-high school physics teacher that has climbed back into the ring in order to make the necessary extra cash (he's got a sick daughter, see) his public school gig isn't bringing in. And in the other corner, there's Tommy (Tom Hardy), a Marine recently back from the front who intends to turn his winnings over to the widow and children of his dead army buddy. But wait, here's the best part: these guys also happen to be brothers. How can you resist a set-up like that?

Contagion: Captain Trips Rides Again

by Ethan Alter September 9, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Contagion</i>: Captain Trips Rides Again

The killer virus movie has been a Hollywood staple for decades now, but it's interesting to note how differently the genre has been interpreted over the years. For example, 1971's The Andromeda Strain is a low-key mystery, while 1995's Outbreak plays like a flat-out Jerry Bruckheimer-style action movie. Meanwhile, 2002's 28 Days Later and 2007's I Am Legend use their viruses as a gateway to exploring a post-apocalyptic world populated by zombies and vampires respectively. And now we have the industry's latest exercise in viral entertainment, Contagion, which takes the form of a classic procedural, the kind delivered week in and week out on shows like Law & Order and CSI. In fact, the sprawling screenplay by Scott Z. Burns could easily serve as a jumping-off point for an ongoing TV series that tracks the spread of a deadly virus across the country as a sizeable team of brave men and women mobilize to stop it.

Red State: God’s Lonely Man

by Ethan Alter September 2, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Red State</i>: God’s Lonely Man

A blood-soaked story of a rogue evangelical Christian sect and their self-appointed mission to punish the deviants and sinners (particularly those of the homosexual variety) in their midst, Red State isn't exactly what you would call a typical Kevin Smith film. And to be honest, that's a relief. Although the Jersey-born and bred writer/director has been building a strong media portfolio of late -- between his Twitter feed, podcasting empire, streaming radio service, comic book projects, a proposed daytime talk show and a just-acquired reality series about his comic book store, Smith seems to be competing for Howard Stern's old title of the King of All Media -- the crown jewel of his empire, namely his feature film career, has been creatively stagnant for much of the past decade. From the problematic father/daughter dramedy Jersey Girl, to the entirely unnecessary sequel Clerks II to the flaccid porn comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno to the painful-to-watch hired gun gig Cop Out, Smith has either seemed completely disengaged from his work (as in Cop Out) or overly eager to repeat past successes (as in Clerks II) or just plain uncertain what kind of a movie he wants to make (Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri).

The Debt: Keep On Playing Those Spy Games

by Ethan Alter August 31, 2011 6:00 am
<i>The Debt</i>: Keep On Playing Those Spy Games

The Debt has one of the worst endings to an otherwise well-crafted thriller in recent memory. It's not just that the final 10-15 minutes are full of illogical contrivances (though they are) -- it's that they fundamentally contradict the movie's intended message. As star Helen Mirren informs us in a voiceover that precedes the closing credits, our takeaway is supposed to be that lies -- even the well-intentioned variety -- will inevitably be uncovered and the guilty may not always be brought to justice. But while she's soberly intoning those words, the events occurring onscreen tell a very different story, one that tries to put a positive, crowd-pleasing spin on what's otherwise a darker, more emotionally complex story. (Don't worry -- as much as I'd like to prepare you for the silliness of the ending, I'll restrain myself from giving it all away.)

The Family Tree: Not An American Beauty

by Ethan Alter August 26, 2011 3:58 pm
<i>The Family Tree</i>: Not An American Beauty

Sam Mendes and Alan Ball's 1999 Oscar winner American Beauty has a lot of sins to answer for, one of which is the subsequent existence of movies like The Family Tree. Like its predecessor, this irritating "ain't the suburbs wacky?" dark comedy tells the story of a dysfunctional family that's made up of the tightly-wound, sex-obsessed fortysomething patriarch Jack (Dermot Mulroney), his bitchy wife Bunnie (Hope Davis) and their snarky adolescent daughter Kelly (Brittany Robertson). There's even a religious nut in the form of their teenage son Eric (Max Thieriot), who has recently found God and now spends much of his time shooting the shit (as well as a few firearms) with his pastor, Reverend Diggs (Keith Carridine). It's all so familiar that while watching the film, you may feel as if you stepped into a time machine that's transported you back to that pre-iPod, pre-Netflix era of the late '90s.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Leave the Lights On

by Ethan Alter August 26, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark</i>: Leave the Lights On

One of the things that distinguishes Guillermo Del Toro's horror films from the rest of the genre rabble are their formal elegance, to say nothing of their narrative discipline. Where a movie like the recent Fright Night remake demonstrates a short-term memory for scares -- cramming multiple jolts into every scene with little regard to the overall arc of the film -- Del Toro takes his time establishing a compelling mood, intriguing characters and a distinctive setting before getting down to the spooky stuff. The setting plays a particularly important role in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a haunted house chiller that takes place almost entirely within the walls of a 19th century manor. From the minute we lay eyes on the place, we know there's something not quite right about it -- beautiful Gothic architecture and to-die-for closet space notwithstanding -- and part of the fun of the movie lies in watching the house's hidden horrors slowly bubble to the surface. The difference between Fright Night and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is like the difference between a novice poker player and an experienced card shark; the former tips his hand too quickly, while the latter bides his time before revealing what he's holding.

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